COVID-19

Victorian schools may be half empty for term three

As the Herald Sun revealed on Friday, some children will return to class next week to watch movies and spend time in the library due to critical staff shortages, interstate travel over the holiday and a spike in Covid cases in schools at the start of the school holidays have forced principals to scramble for additional casual relief teachers (CRTs) in case more existing temporary staff are struck off sick.Up to a fifth of student cohorts in schools across Melbourne were reportedly kept at home simultaneously with Covid or the flu at the end of term two.It is understood one primary school in Melbourne’s southeast had up to 100 of its 600 students away from class just before school holidays started.Principal of Parkdale’s St John Vianney’s Primary School Michael Schink said the number of students expected to turn up for class on Monday remained unknown.“We obviously had a few families that travelled internationally or interstate. They’ve been on planes and stuff, and you just don’t know what they might get,” he said.“We are preparing to have another term probably similar to the last the first two terms where you expect the unexpected.“There might be ebbs and flows. One week, you’ve got just about everyone here, and then the following week, we’ll have a number of kids that are sick.”The bayside primary school at one point saw 25 of its 150 students absent in a single day, but Mr Schink said leadership staff and internal casual teachers were on standby to take over classes in the event more teachers contract Covid.Senior Minister Ben Carroll said the government would work closely with the Australian Education Union.“We’re very committed to doing everything we can to continue to recruit more teachers, to put more investment into our schools to ensure that kids get the best start, from very much the day they’re born right through to the day they finish school,” he said.“And that does mean supporting our world class teachers working very closely with the Australian Education Union to ensure if there are any gaps, like (have been) identified, what can we do to fill them and support them?“We want students getting the best learning and being set up for life, and that’s what we’re about as a government.”While regular rapid testing remains a requirement in Catholic schools, Education Minister Natalie Hutchins on Friday announced that the government would continue supplying state schools and childcare centres with 46 additional free rapid tests.Upon request, students and staff can receive up to three packs containing five tests each term, while specialist schools will be given six packs of five tests.“We have kept our promise to ensure school doors have remained open from the beginning of term one, and free RATs will stay to keep students and staff safe and learning face-to-face continues,” Ms Hutchins said.Gail McHardy, Parents Victoria CEO, said she was “pleased to hear the Victorian Government were still making available free rapid antigen test kits for school students as we navigate the remainder of winter with ongoing covid/influenza outbreaks”.“It’s a useful reminder to all families and schools as we hit the school half year mark and school resumes next week, to take good care of each other and keep communication lines open between home and school,” she said.Parents said they were relieved they would not have to pay for their children’s tests, which can cost up to $15 each.More than 130,000 air purifiers have been rolled out in state and private schools alongside 80 million rapid tests this year.‘Kids will end up watching movies’Some children will return to class next week to watch movies and spend time in the library as critical staff shortages continue to plague Victorian schools. Many will continue bringing forward pupil-free days, staggering work-from-home days for different year levels and combining classes, all to cope with staff losses of up to 50 per cent due to Covid and flu.The Australian Education Union has said it is “very concerned” about the situation facing primary and secondary schools in the new term due to widespread staff illness.Some teachers are also concerned about the safety of schools, given that masks are off and unvaccinated staff have returned to campus. Malcolm Elliott, president of the Australian Primary Principals’ Association, said students would not be returning to normal classroom teaching when classes resumed on Monday or Tuesday.“In some instances, kids will be watching films or spending extra time in libraries rather than being taught in classrooms,” he said. “It’s hard to get relief teachers and those that are around are getting sick too. “A primary school may have 16 teachers but up to six or more of them off sick – ­principals are having to teach as well as do their own job.“This constant uncertainty is having an impact on children who don’t know who will be teaching them”. Mr Elliott added that some teachers were worried about their safety. “Teachers are people too and they are worried about their own health and wider family. Teachers are aware of escalating infection numbers and hoping they remain healthy so they can do their jobs,” he said.“This is a very, very serious situation.”Australian Education Union Victorian branch deputy president Justin Mullaly said the union was “very concerned” about the shortages still plaguing schools.“In particular, we’re worried about the additional workloads experienced by public school teachers, principals and education support staff ­because of illness-related staff absences and associated staff shortages,” he said. “These additional workloads are only adding to the stress and increasing pressure felt by school staff this year.” Mr Mullaly called on the Department of Education to continue to wind back teachers’ bureaucratic and administrative workloads to get staff back into classrooms. “We have continued to raise these concerns with the ­department and expect them to provide additional support to schools,” he said. “This includes acting to boost the supply of casual relief teachers, and scaling back ­department and school-based work requirements so schools can concentrate on essential teaching and student and staff wellbeing. “School staff need more flexibility and support from the department to manage these pressures.”A state government spokesman said: “Our principals and school staff have worked hard through terms one and two and were able to maximise face-to-face learning, despite the significant challenges of Covid-19 and influenza.“The Department of Education will continue to work closely with schools and provide every support possible to ensure that this is again the case in term three,” he said.

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