Schools brace for more remote learning, call for staff vaccinations

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The think tank behind Victoria’s coronavirus catch-up tutors program says the Andrews government should urgently prioritise reopening schools to limit lost learning for struggling students, as principals prepare for the possibility that remote learning will continue for a second week.

There are growing calls across the school sector for educators to join aged care and disability workers in getting fast-tracked vaccinations to reduce the risk of another prolonged period of remote learning.

Julie Sonnemann of the Grattan Institute says there’s a real risk protracted school shutdowns will harm some students.Credit:Janie Barrett

Julie Sonnemann, school education fellow at the Grattan Institute, warned that there was a real risk that protracted school shutdowns would harm some students, particularly those who struggled with remote schooling last year.

“Getting schools reopened as soon as possible should be a key priority for government,” she said.

The Andrews government has rolled out a $250 million tutoring learning program and school mental health packages this year to address the fallout from almost two terms of remote learning in 2020.

These programs are continuing online during Victoria’s fourth lockdown, which includes a statewide shift to home learning until at least Thursday.

But Ms Sonnemann said online tutoring for a small handful of students could only do so much during a lockdown and that the quality of whole-class remote learning needed to be improved.

“Government should really be investing now in improving the quality of remote schooling for the future, given that short lockdowns are likely to keep happening.”

As Victoria recorded three more local COVID-19 cases on Tuesday, Michael Fawcett, principal of Homestead Senior Secondary College in Point Cook, said schools were expecting remote learning to continue beyond this week.

“Everyone has got that deflated feeling already that it’s not going to stop on Thursday,” he said.

Philip Cachia, the principal of St Francis Xavier Catholic Primary in Montmorency, said his school was planning for three scenarios: a return to the classroom on Friday; a return next week; or the continuation of remote learning for the rest of term two, which ends on June 25.

Meanwhile, education unions, some schools and teachers have backed calls for priority vaccination of school staff, after the authors of a report on COVID-19 in Victorian schools and early learning centres said schools should only be opened or locked down based on their proximity to community cases.

Canterbury girls’ school Strathcona said it believed it was in the “best interest of the community at large if the COVID-19 vaccination is made available to all teachers and school staff now”.

“This will enable schools to remain open, students to learn and socialise with their peers without disruption, and their parents and caretakers to continue to work.”

Independent Schools Victoria chief executive Michelle Green said there was a strong case for staff in schools, and especially in childcare services, to have vaccination priority.

“They all perform a frontline task and many feel vulnerable, particularly those in childcare services which are remaining in operation during current and previous restrictions.“

Jim Miles, executive director of the Catholic Education Commission of Victoria, said the “best place for students to learn is at school with their teachers and friends, and we want schools to reopen as soon as possible”.

”However, we must all play our part in minimising the risk of this virus spreading further in the Victorian community.”

The Independent Education Union said school staff should be prioritised on the vaccination list and it was pushing for a “more sensible approach”.

The Australian Education Union said that “unless education staff are able to have priority access to a vaccine, we continue to be at risk of more disruptions to the on-site education of our students, especially in schools and TAFEs”.

Victoria has more than 1 million school students and almost 133,000 staff members, the latest official figures show. A handful of schools have been temporarily closed this week due to COVID-19 cases, including girls’ schools Mercy College in Coburg and MLC in Kew.

Mr Fawcett said while he supported priority vaccination of school staff, the issue was not black and white given students also transmit the virus.

“In a lockdown, kids on the loose going to and from school will be one giant statewide super-spreading event. You can’t contain a virus if hundreds of thousands of children are out and about,” he said.

“The two local shopping centres out here are both exposure sites. School kids are at the shops every day.”

Tina King, the acting head of the Australian Principals’ Federation, said the case for vaccinating school staff was strengthened by a shortage of casual relief teachers, as many who previously did this job are currently working as COVID-19 catch-up tutors.

“Schools are not closed, they are operating in reduced capacities because they still have to make provision for the care of vulnerable students and those of essential workers, and many schools are rotating staff to come in and provide that supervision,” Ms King said.

Mr Cachia said the government’s list of industries authorised to send their children to school in lockdown was too long, and was compromising teachers’ abilities to do their jobs.

With no permit system for authorised workers in this lockdown, Mr Cachia said his school had gone from having “four or five kids” on-site for supervision in the previous lockdown to about 25.

“That then impacts on teachers, who are having to come in rather than be teaching their students from home,” he said.

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