Victoria’s Education Minister has ruled out a widespread return to remote learning as schools deal with unprecedented staff shortages related to COVID-19 and flu outbreaks.
- One government and one private school have had to return to remote learning because of staff shortages
- Some schools have experienced a doubling in absenteeism among students because of illness
- An infectious diseases expert says schools should remain open
Victoria has recorded 22 deaths from COVID-19 and 14,220 new cases of the virus.
The state has been recording more than 10,000 new COVID-19 cases per day for the past ten days, while influenza cases have also spiked.
Schools are reporting difficulties finding relief teachers, but Education Minister James Merlino said only one government school had been forced to close its doors to students.
“Today, there is one year level at one school where the students are learning from home for a short period of time as that school deals with some staffing pressures,” he said.
“We’ve got schools open, they continue to remain open throughout term one and term two. Yes, there are staffing challenges, of course there are.
“We’ve committed to opening schools and keeping them open and that’s exactly what we’ve delivered as that is of highest benefit to our kids.”
The staff shortages and student illnesses were not just affecting schools in the public system.
Mr Merlino confirmed a Victorian private school in Shepparton had also been forced to return to some remote learning.
Principal of Caroline Chisholm Catholic College in Melbourne’s west, Robert Brennan, said the absentee rate at his school was double what it normally is, and 28 teachers were also sidelined.
Mr Brennan said 15 staff had COVID, and seven had flu.
“We got into eight CRTs [casual relief teachers]but that only covers 32 of the 83 periods needing to be covered, “he said.
“So, that means the staff on-site need to cover 53 of those periods and while it can be done on a single day, to continue to do that over a full week, it’s near-on impossible.”
Mr Brennan said he believed the workload of teachers was contributing to illness, on top of COVID-19 infections.
Teachers and students who test positive to COVID-19 are required to isolate for seven days, but close contacts are not required to isolate if they do not have symptoms.
The Victorian government removed the requirement for students in years 3 to 6 to wear masks in the classroom at the start of term two in April.
The Education Department has been rolling out air purifiers for use in classrooms, and schools have been encouraged to maximize the use of outdoor areas for teaching.
The department said more air purifiers were expected to be delivered to schools by June 1.
Rapid antigen tests are also being distributed to students, and the free RAT scheme is due to continue for the rest of the term.
Despite the staff shortages, some experts argue a return to remote learning is not the answer.
Professor of infectious diseases at the ANU Medical School, Peter Collignon, said schools should remain open for students.
“If you have a lot of people sick, a lot of teachers sick, you have to adjust. You may have to have some online learning for periods if you can not deliver the schooling actually in person, but that should be a last resort and for less than a week, “Professor Collignon said.
“What we need to do is make sure people who are sick do not go to school to decrease the risk of giving it to others.”
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