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Teachers split on merits of Victoria’s return-to-school plan

The Andrews government initially said that schools would be closed to everyone – except vulnerable students and children of essential workers – for all of term two.

Schools will “look different” when they return, with social distancing measures in place, Premier Daniel Andrews said on Tuesday.

Parents will be barred from entering school grounds unless it is absolutely necessary, he said.

“There will be a whole range of protocols so we don’t have adults mingling, we don’t have parents mingling. There will be staggered drop-offs, there will be staggered breaks for play, for lunch,” Mr Andrews said.

Teachers and staff will socially distance and there will be increased cleaning, with an extra $45 million in funding.

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Schools would be cleaned every day for the remainder of term two and all of term three, Education Minister James Merlino said.

Teachers and school staff will return to school on May 25 for a pupil-free day.

The Victorian government has faced intense political pressure in recent weeks to follow other states and announce a plan to reopen classrooms in term two.

Mr Andrews said the testing blitz of recent days had given the government the confidence it needed to go forward.

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“It’s a matter of life and death if you get it wrong, so we have erred, we have been cautious, I make no apology for that,” he said.

Steven Kolber, a literacy specialist and English teacher at a state secondary school, said he was eager to get back to class, having observed a widening gap between his brightest and most disengaged students during the COVID-19 lockdown.

While some students are thriving, others are showing no sign of even participating in online classes beyond the basic requirement of logging on four times a day for online roll call.

“One of the reasons we have schools, I guess, is as big social institutions so that we can cushion the effects of social disadvantage,” Mr Kolber said. “Online, a lot of those support systems are still there but it’s a lot harder to achieve.”

Through necessity, many students have also proved they are very capable of working without supervision, he said.

“At the moment we are set in place by a very archaic timetable system that says you’ve got to be here from this time to this time, but our kids have shown that they can work independently without having a teacher sitting right in front of them, or leaning over their shoulder.”

Secondary school teacher Maryanne Theodosis believes it would have been better for students if schools had pushed through with remote learning until the end of term two.

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A brief return to class, followed by school holidays, would heighten disruption for students, Ms Theodosis said.

“It takes probably about four weeks for kids to settle into a routine, so now they are in a routine,” she said.

Ms Theodosis, who teaches Greek and geography to students in years 10 to 12 at St Monica’s College in Epping, said the mid-term return to classes “will be quite intense”.

“I know that it will be easier for society, for parents, if kids come back to school because they don’t have to deal with them, but the disruption that it will cause will just be a lot worse,” she said.

Bendigo Senior Secondary College is preparing for the largest influx of students on May 26 of any school in the state, with almost 2000 year 11 and 12 students.

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“Our students are telling us that they’re desperately keen to get back to school, so I think on that score … students will be very happy to be back,” principal Dale Pearce said.

Most teachers at the school are also eager to return to the classroom, he said, but warned that the task of meeting the government’s social-distancing requirements – with staggered classes and break times – might prove unfeasible.

“For secondary schools, that idea of staggering the lunch breaks and class times is really problematic,” Mr Pearce said.

“I think it can work in a primary school setting, where you’ve got the one group of kids with the one teacher most of the time, but in a secondary school, it’s really hard to implement.”

The school will step up a hygiene and hand-sanitising regime to ease health concerns, Mr Pearce said.

It will also increase its use of online resources for tasks such as meetings, so teachers can dedicate more time to individual students.

“There are a whole range of things that we do face to face at the moment that we think we can potentially do online.”

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