Boarding schools brace for a big hit


Queensland's boarding schools are bracing for a huge loss in fees as principals warn students from interstate will not return next year due to ongoing stress from COVID-19.

Peter Fullagar, principal of St Joseph's Nudgee College, fears anxiety in students already isolated for months from their families will cause a mass exodus in 2021 as parents put their children's mental wellbeing first.

"There is a growing awareness among the boarding school community that, long term, this is going to affect enrolments and families from NSW will not send their children back next year. It has been too stressful," Mr Fullagar said.

"This will have an enormous economic impact on schools as well as on students, many of whom are already struggling and receiving counselling to deal with the extended imposition of separation from loved ones."


St Joseph's Nudgee College Principal Peter Fullagar.
St Joseph's Nudgee College Principal Peter Fullagar.


Mr Fullagar - whose school has around 300 boarders, including 20 from NSW, paying fees of up to $21,420 on top of $15,740 tuition - said many were from COVID-free parts of the country.

"There is frustration with the hard-line approach the Chief Health Office and the State Government is taking, and with its lack of flexibility," Mr Fullagar said.

"The reality is this is impacting students' mental wellbeing, including boys as young as 12."

The Queensland Government has refused to relax border restrictions to COVID-free towns despite desperate pleas from interstate parents who have described the separation as "worse than the soul-destroying drought".

It comes as the Federal Government demands an end to "confusion and cruelty" of arbitrary border restrictions and pressure mounts for a national hotspot definition.

While families within the border zone have been granted exemptions to travel for school activity, those on the wrong side of the bubble, including in northern NSW, face 14 days in quarantine or the uncertainty of exemption applications.


Nudgee College is bracing for an enormous loss. Picture: Mark Cranitch
Nudgee College is bracing for an enormous loss. Picture: Mark Cranitch


Anthony Micallef, headmaster of Brisbane Grammar School, described the toll of border restrictions as "significant".

"One of our young boarders from NSW returned home unwell and is now unable to return to BGS without quarantining for 14 days," Mr Micallef said.

For Year 12 students at Queensland's most expensive school, where boarding fees are up to $27,060 and tuition $27,540, the challenge has been great.

"In addition to navigating a new examination system, they face not returning home and seeing family during the all-important preparation for external assessment," he said, adding the boarding house would remain open during the Term 3 break.

Wendy Lauman, principal of St Hilda's School Gold Coast, said parents of younger children might delay boarding school altogether.

"I have no doubt some families will decide to send their children back and others, for whatever reason with their business or child's individual needs, won't … and some parents might wait until their children are older, around the Year 9 or 10 mark, and we have to flexible and open to that," Ms Lauman said.

At St Margaret's in Ascot, principal Ros Curtis said the school was seeking "an effective plan".

"It's a little too early to speculate on what may happen at the beginning of next year," Ms Curtis said.

"We can only be guided by the advice from the State Government, as we have throughout the pandemic, but ideally, all parties can work together to develop an effective plan, if it becomes necessary, to appropriately quarantine students who are under 18 so their education is not disrupted."

St Margaret's will be keeping its boarding house open during the September holidays free of charge to boarders.

Nudgee's Peter Fullagar said boarding school provided invaluable opportunities to children in rural and remote Australia to receive a quality education.

Some interstate families had relocated to Queensland and self-quarantined "to be present for their Year 12 sons during this final stretch", while other Nudgee families in Brisbane had offered to billet boarders over the September school holidays so the students didn't have to go home and then quarantine and miss the start of Term 3.

"As generous as this is, it is not the same (for those boys) as being with family," he said.


The headmaster of Brisbane Grammar School described the toll of border restrictions as “significant”.
The headmaster of Brisbane Grammar School described the toll of border restrictions as “significant”.


Scots PGC College Principal Kyle Thompson said expecting boarding students to isolate for two weeks would have significant mental health implications on the adolescents.

He said boarding schools did not have the resources to house students in single ensuite rooms so they could isolate, so some pupils would have to self-quarantine at their own expense in Government-mandated facilities.

"Some other options are that students don't return home, that's a very real option for our senior students who are preparing for the first round of external exams in Queensland early next term," he said.

Mr Thompson said another potential outcome would be that students would instead attend different schools within NSW which would be particularly disappointing for the school and its community.

"In reality we're not asking for the government to reinvent the wheel, we're asking them to apply the same conditions they had for boarders the first time we went into lockdown.

"We want there to be a structured process whereby students can gain an exemption to return for boarding school from remote areas without the need to isolate."

A Queensland Health spokesperson said they appreciated the challenges facing boarding school students and their families during this unprecedented time.

"Exemptions to the Border Restrictions Direction continue to be limited and issued only in exceptional circumstances.

"We understand this is a complicated time for many, however the border restrictions and quarantine arrangements being used in Queensland are there to protect our community from the ongoing international COVID-19 pandemic."

Meanwhile, Queensland Senator Susan McDonald, who is the mother of two boys at boarding school, is backing the plight of the regional NSW families with gets in Queensland boarding schools.

"The inflexibility and impracticality of the way borders are operating mean there's a real risk to these kids and families," she said.

"They're coming from places with no COVID and yet they can't see their families. I plead with the Premier and CHO to find a way to be more practical on their administration of COVID safety laws."

She said that there was an enormous growth of mental health issues.

"Part of that is the isolation that people are undergoing as part of these restrictions," Senator McDonald said.

- additional reporting by Antonia O'Flaherty, Matthew Killoran




Originally published as Boarding schools brace for a big hit