Schools tested as high case numbers lead to hundreds of closures

Drouin Secondary College welcomed hundreds of students back to campus on Friday after the detection of a case of COVID-19 in a student triggered a temporary closure on Wednesday.

However, the joy of being back was tempered by the fact that 105 of the West Gippsland school’s year 10 and 11 students are still at home, spending up to 14 days in isolation after being identified as close personal contacts of the infectious student.

New COVID-19 protocols and high case numbers mean that schools need to offer a blend of face-to-face and remote learning in term 4. Credit:Eddie Jim

The school is offering as much remote learning to those students as it can, assistant principal Robert Monk said, but it’s a tricky task for teachers who are simultaneously running a face-to-face lesson for students who are not in quarantine.

“It’s really hard to do and the kids at home feel like they’re second-class citizens because there is so much stuff that goes on in a classroom that they miss,” Mr Monk said.

The college will have to close again on Tuesday after two more cases emerged.

The staggered return to face-to-face learning in Victoria is coinciding with high coronavirus case numbers in the community and more than 200 schools have been forced to temporarily close this month.

New COVID-safe protocols mean schools no longer have to close for 14 days, but can reopen the next day in some cases.

The new protocols enable more students to be in class, but also require schools to perform a new juggling act: educating both the students who are on campus and those who are in quarantine.

Berwick Lodge Primary principal Henry Grossek said the new protocols were particularly tough on primary school students, who are unvaccinated and so must spend 14 days isolating at home.

The large primary school in Melbourne’s southeast has been closed for the past week after 14 students tested positive last week but will reopen on Tuesday.

Berwick Lodge Primary School principal Henry Grossek predicts many more schools will be forced to close temporarily before the year is over.Credit:Paul Jeffers

However, about 80 students will continue isolating, including many who are the children of essential workers, Mr Grossek said.

He said his school would assign those students offline tasks, but did not have enough teaching staff to give them live lessons.

“It’s all very good to close a school for only one day, but there is a really nasty sting for some kids and families who are then having two weeks of isolation and not being able to be on-site. And then you’ve got to run this multi-faceted mix of remote and [face-to-face] learning, [with] teachers trying to do two jobs at once.”

Mr Grossek predicted many more schools in Victoria would face the same problem before the year is out.

“Primary schools between now and the end of the year are very vulnerable to significant disruptions,” he said. “A lot of people are thinking that the return to school is the beginning of a nice time, but I think the nice time might be next year.”

The Andrews government announced on Sunday that all year levels will be back at school by November 1, by which time Victoria will have reached its 80 per cent double-dose vaccination target for people aged 16 and over. Previously, all students were due back on November 5.

The Department of Education and Training advised schools to prepare for the prospect of further disruption to on-site schooling in term 4, “even if it is localised to a school, year level, class or small group of students”.

“Under such circumstances, remote learning and wellbeing programs need to be as strong as they can be,” it said in recent advice to schools.

Tina King, the acting president of the Australian Principals Federation, said providing face-to-face and remote learning was “logistically very challenging”, added to teacher workload and affected the quality of remote learning programs.

For many schools it might just be a case of sending kids home with learning packs, she said.

“This is what we are dealing with now that we are opening up and we are getting positive cases in schools,” Ms King said.

“It’s hard on the kids, it’s hard on the staff, but the alternative is we go back to complete school closures when you have a positive case, and I don’t think anybody wants to see that either.”

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