Cancel camps and let schools shut if needed, unions say as illness bites
Teachers’ unions say Victorian schools should consider making a temporary return to remote learning and cancelling camps in the face of severe staff shortages caused by influenza and COVID-19.
With Victoria reporting more than 10,000 COVID-19 cases a day, many schools have struggled to replace staff who are off sick or isolating, prompting classes to be merged, school leaders to step in to teach and some schools to announce student-free days.
School camps should be put on hold amid soaring flu and COVID-19 cases, unions say.Credit:iStock
The unions say schools cannot be expected to operate as normal.
“Schools need more flexibility to manage the pressures they confront, and the [Education] Department cannot expect schools to operate as usual,” said Justin Mullaly, deputy president of the Australian Education Union’s Victorian branch.
But Jordana Hunter, education program director of think tank Grattan Institute, said remote learning must be a last resort and disrupted face-to-face schooling was better than returning to home learning.
After more than two years of interrupted schooling, it was “imperative that we find a way to give to children as little disruption as possible, and that stretches across learning areas as well as camps and things of that nature”, Hunter said.
The department’s policy is that schools stay open, despite high flu and COVID-19 cases.
Last week, Education Minister James Merlino said the main challenge of the pandemic had evolved from remote learning to staffing shortages.
“The key thing for me … [and] parents and carers is that schools are open and students are learning face to face with their peers,” Merlino said.
To ensure face-to-face learning continues, schools are relying on air purifiers, staff and student vaccines, and shade sails to encourage outside lessons to minimise transmission and keep campuses open.
Restrictions have eased in schools. Students no longer wear masks, asymptomatic household contacts may attend, and students are provided with rapid antigen tests but no longer required to test themselves regularly.
The Independent Education Union said members were reporting “increasing levels of fatigue and burnout – and as winter approaches, it is likely that case numbers will grow and staff absences will be compounded by other seasonal illnesses such as the flu”.
“Schools are already booking up every casual relief teacher they can find, and in most schools, members of the leadership team are taking whatever extras and classes they are able to fit in around their increased workload,” general secretary Debra James said in an emailed member bulletin.
“There are more steps that schools should be (and in many cases already are) taking, in consultation with staff.
“These include minimising meetings, putting any curriculum reform measures or new initiatives on hold, postponing or cancelling camps and other extracurricular activities, offering additional hours to part-time staff, cutting back on reporting expectations, scheduling individual year levels or other student cohorts for regular non-attendance days, [and] whole school closure days.”
The Knox School in Melbourne’s east and Damascus College in Ballarat are among non-government schools that have chosen to send year levels home for days of remote learning to get infections under control. In addition, 11 government schools have switched to remote learning briefly since the start of the year.
The department said it was supporting schools to stay open and continue face-to-face learning with casual relief teachers, department staff who are registered teachers, and its new pool of retired, career-break and pre-service teachers.
It’s unclear how many times that pool – of close to 1000 people – has been used by schools.
Schools are also urged to contact the department for extra funding to hire casual relief teachers, amid complaints that many have already exhausted their funding to cover the extraordinary staffing gaps.
More than 101,000 air purifiers have been installed in Victorian schools so far, with a further 9000 due by next week.
Balwyn High School principal Deborah Harman said her school had experienced dozens of staff off sick but had managed to minimise educational disruption.
“We haven’t got to that stage of dismissing year levels,” she said. “Some year 12 classes that we have not been able to cover, the vast majority of students will take their lesson plan that’s been supplied or may go home if they are supervised there.”
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