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The 2022 school year in Victoria will start under an Omicron cloud. Students will be asked to complete rapid tests at least twice a week before school, masks will continue to be part of the uniform for grade 3 students and above and some classes (where suitable) will be held outdoors.
But there are still plenty of questions around how it will work. We asked readers what they wanted to know, and then asked Victoria’s Education Department to answer those questions. Here’s what they said.
Victorian students will be asked to do a rapid test twice a week before school from the start of term 1.Credit:Luis Ascui
Do students get rapid antigen tested at home or school? If at home, how do we trust that they are actually being tested? Would it help to check temperatures every day before class?
Students will be rapid tested at home twice a week before school. We know families are keen to use this testing to protect themselves and their communities. This testing is voluntary but highly recommended.
Will RATs be provided to Catholic primary schools and independent schools?
All schools will receive RATs.
When will the tests be available and completed?
Schools will contact parents to arrange pick-up of the tests and explain the testing frequency.
Why is rapid testing not a requirement for children in early childhood care? Under-fives are the only ones in our society not immunised and COVID-19 is going through early childhood centres at the moment. How are we meant to protect our kids?
This decision is consistent with national cabinet discussions and the approach being taken by NSW. The Victorian government is supplying and delivering rapid antigen test kits to all early childhood education and care services to support their staff – including Commonwealth-funded childcare services. More than 1 million test kits are being provided over four weeks to these critical services.
Combined with all the other COVID-safe steps, including increased ventilation and outdoor play, this support for rapid antigen testing for staff will reduce transmission in services.
COVID is generally extremely mild in young children. Any children who are household contacts will continue to need to be in isolation for seven days, along with children who have COVID. Families can still access rapid antigen tests or PCR tests for free for children who have symptoms at state testing centres. Children who have any symptoms, however mild, should stay home and get tested for COVID.
What proof is required that children/staff have had a RAT?
This is a strong recommendation, rather than a mandate, so proof won’t be required but we know families are extremely keen to protect themselves and their communities.
Will the government be providing saliva RATs to all schools for younger kids who get severely distressed by the nasal swabs?
We have worked hard to secure 14 million RATs to ensure that every Victorian student is able to take part in this highly recommended surveillance testing. We know that there will be cases in schools but Doherty modelling shows early surveillance testing will help to drive numbers down and stop chains of transmission.
Will RATs reach Catholic schools by this coming Friday, as this is when some students are returning to school?
Many of the tests will reach schools throughout this week, but they will all be in place by Monday January 31. Families should check with their schools regarding distribution.
Why do the plans ask for surgical masks to be worn when experts are saying N95 or KN95 masks are better?
We are delivering 31 million surgical masks to schools in the first four weeks of term, including 5.8 million masks to be delivered in the first week. This includes N95 masks, child-sized surgical masks and adult surgical masks. They will be recommended to be worn and available at the school.
“Teachers will be required to wear masks at all times when not actively teaching or communicating with students.” To clarify, does this mean that teachers do NOT have to wear a mask while talking to students, working with small groups and during whole class teaching?
Teachers are required to wear masks unless it’s not practical, i.e. if it’s challenging for them to communicate with masks.
Do these rules and availability of tests, masks apply to the Catholic and private teaching sector? I teach at a low-fee Catholic secondary school and we’ve had no information on what applies to us or what changes have been made, eg HEPA filters in classrooms.
Air purifiers have been provided to low-fee non-government schools. The free rapid tests will also be provided to all non-government schools.
Will kids have to get their first COVID-19 dose to attend school?
While the vaccination is not mandatory for children, we can’t stress enough the protection it will provide to all students and entire schools communities – and we encourage every parent to book their child in as soon as possible to be protected.
How do we manage the risk unvaccinated children or children from unvaccinated guardians bring to schools?
We need to get as many children vaccinated as possible to protect our school communities. The best thing all Victorian families can do is book their children in for their first and second doses, and book their own third doses.
Most retired staff have let their Victorian Institute of Teaching registration lapse. It is very difficult and expensive to re-activate. Will the government allow changes to this process?
All staff employed through the pool must hold a valid Working with Children Check or valid Victorian Institute of Teaching registration prior to the commencement of employment.
Will staff only be required at their workplace to perform duties which cannot be undertaken remotely – and in particular will staff meetings and planning sessions (including any scheduled for January 28) be held in-person? Will days of work missed by teachers and school staff due to contracting COVID or due to isolation requirements be deducted from leave entitlements or pay?
All school staff are expected to work on site, except for medically vulnerable staff and staff required to quarantine. Staff can apply for infectious diseases leave, which provides up to three months’ leave outside of personal leave.
What obligations are being put on higher-fee paying private schools to provide ventilation and air purification in classes? There should not be different rules for state versus private sector.
We’ve provided air purification devices to low-fee non-government schools as part of the rollout of the 51,000 air purifiers, and worked closely with the Catholic Education Commission of Victoria and Independent Schools Victoria to provide consistent guidance to all schools on health and safety measures including ventilation.
Enforcing the new rules
How is a class of grade 3 and lower children together in a room with optional surgical masks and maybe a single dose of vaccination (which is not protective) different to a COVID party?
The Back to School plan provides a range of measures to ensure that schools are as safe as possible for staff and students. This includes requiring all teachers and staff to have three vaccination doses, promoting vaccinations for children aged 5-11, recommended surveillance testing for all students, bolstering ventilation measures in all schools and kindergarten services, including 51,000 air purifiers for schools and ventilation grants for not-for-profit kindergarten services, along with other vital COVID-safe measures, including mask requirements, staying at home when unwell, handwashing and good hygiene, physical distancing, and outside learning when appropriate.
How can it make sense to combine classes in large venues like gyms which would increase the risk of exposure? How can teachers teach effectively outdoors? I rely on technology and use my computer and screen in almost every lesson. Are teachers once again expected to come up with another new way of teaching?
The health advice is that there is a lower risk of transmission in outdoor areas. This is consistent with broader community settings and will enable clear and logical communication to schools that is consistent with broader community settings and expectations. Schools are encouraged to hold lessons outdoors where appropriate for the subject.
Many students and teachers will be close contacts but will test negative until they test positive. Will the parents whose children are in classrooms all day with these close contacts be notified of this? For example, if my child is in a room all day with five students plus a teacher who are all close contacts, will I be told so I can choose whether to send my child to school?
Contact-tracing requirements in schools and early childhood education and care services will be replaced by a communicable disease approach, where parents and carers at a school are informed when a COVID-positive person has attended at the school or ECEC service and what their next steps are (including watching for symptoms and what to do if symptoms appear).
Will the staff to student ratios to ensure student safety still be enforced or will teachers be expected to teach classes with numbers outside of the agreement?
Staff to student ratios will be maintained wherever possible. However, in the instance of staff absences due to COVID a tiered approach will be implemented. This could include drawing on teachers from the casual relief pool and using staff from the newly announced Job Opportunity Pool. In some cases schools may be required to combine cohorts for a short period of time.
Vulnerable students, staff
Medically vulnerable children attend mainstream schools too. What is the process for parents of vulnerable children advised by treating doctors to delay return until fully vaccinated?
All students are expected to attend on site unless they are formally registered as being home-schooled. Parent preference is not an approved reason for students to be absent due to COVID-19. Students who do not attend school due to medical advice should be supported in the same way as students with an extended absence due to illness or injury, with learning materials provided to support their continued learning.
What is the plan for medically vulnerable staff?
Employees should seek advice from their medical practitioner about working on site if they are at greater risk of more serious illness with COVID-19. Where the employee is unable to work on site and wants to work remotely or take personal leave, they should provide a medical certificate. Where remote work is not available, the employee can access leave available to them or return to duty once the medical advice is that it is safe for them to do so.
My wife is pregnant and a teacher. I am already nervous about her returning to school. How can the government mandate a third dose of vaccine when the GP has advised us not to get a booster at 28 weeks pregnant because there are no studies on the effect of a booster dose on the child? Surely this can be medically exempt?
Staff who are considered medically exempt by their doctor and have a certificate will not be required to have a third dose.
If you are a teacher or classroom support staff, and you have recently recovered from COVID do you still need to have booster by Feb 25? I thought we had up to three months natural immunity?
The recommendation is that a booster is safe and effective to get as soon as you are free of COVID symptoms.
Working across sectors
I work as an Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency-registered health practitioner, and a part-time primary school specialist teacher. Now I seem to have different sets of rules for different occupations. I don’t believe anyone has taken into consideration part-time teachers, who work across multiple locations.
Requirements for school teachers and staff are consistent across the board and includes vaccine mandates for a third dose. This includes contractors and part-time teachers. The government is dedicated to providing face-to-face learning for our state’s students.
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