“The pandemic across the globe has been very, very challenging – it is a crisis of tragic proportions,” Mr Merlino said.
“But when you look at how schools have responded, there is gold … and we’ve got to mine that gold and make it a feature of our education system.”
The minister said “time is of the essence” and the resources that engaged vulnerable children with learning would need to be enforced as soon as possible. “We may well be able” to make those changes for next term, he said.
Mr Merlino made the announcement as thousands of students in prep, grades one and two and years 11 and 12 returned to classrooms on Tuesday. The remaining year levels are set to return in two weeks.
Mr Merlino said schools would need to work closely for the rest of term two – five weeks – to ensure that children who have fallen behind in their studies can catch up.
While some students have thrived during remote learning, Mr Merlino said there was another group who have been emotionally and mentally affected.
Schools will place a huge emphasis on mental health and wellbeing over the course of the year, and work with the department to ensure vulnerable students are identified early and supported.
“We’ve got our GPs in schools, we’ve got mental health practitioners that we’re rolling out, so we’ve got teams already embedded in our regional offices as well as wellbeing teams within our schools,” Mr Merlino said.
“We’ve got a particular focus over the remaining five weeks of this term on the health and wellbeing of our students. So the support is there, the expertise is already there.
“Schools know what they need to do, and that’s [why] they’re going to roll up their sleeves today and get stuck into it.”
The minister also revealed that 17,500 education staff had been tested for coronavirus, with one Keilor Downs Secondary College teacher testing positive. That teacher had not visited the school and no close contacts with the school had been identified.
Mr Merlino said only 2 per cent of education staff had been identified as being exempt from returning to the classroom.
Meanwhile, the state recorded five new cases in the 24 hours to Tuesday morning and Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton said community transmission of coronavirus in Victoria could cease within weeks.
There have been 1610 cases of coronavirus confirmed in Victoria. To date, 1533 people have recovered.
Of those, 182 cases are thought to have been acquired through community transmission. Nineteen people have died.
Of the five cases diagnosed in the past 24 hours, three were returned travellers and two were cases of community transmission. Cases of community transmission have been growing in the low single digits for weeks.
“It’s potentially just a matter of a few weeks away where … we could get to days or weeks of zero community transmission,” Professor Sutton said on ABC Radio Melbourne.
He said the state government would continue to mass-test the population well into the future to ensure it picked up any spikes in community transmission.
The biggest threat to eliminating the virus was the public reverting to old habits and not obeying prescribed physical distancing and hygiene protocols.
“We’re all alive to the fact that you change the messaging a bit … and all of a sudden you see a real shift in behaviour and a very laissez-faire approach,” he said.
Sumeyya is a state political reporter for The Age.
Paul is a reporter for The Age.