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Remote-learning move not enough to quell teachers’ virus fears

Students from prep to year 10 will return to remote learning from July 20 until at least August 19, following an extra week of school holidays.

Early childhood education will open as normal, as will schools in the rest of the state. Students with special needs who attend a mainstream school will also be permitted to attend school.

The announcement came on the same day as the state recorded its second-largest daily increase in coronavirus to-date, with 273 new cases and rising rates of community transmission.

The principal of a leading non-government school in Melbourne’s eastern suburbs warned there was “some kind of revolt coming from teachers” over the requirement to be in the classroom with senior students.

The principal, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said “social distancing cannot happen in a classroom environment”.

“We’re being told to say it’s OK to be in the classroom and I know it’s not,” the principal said.

After the outbreak at Al-Taqwa College in Truganina, many teachers would not accept the advice that schools are a low-risk environment, the principal said.

Senior students at the college are believed to be a major contributor to the cluster, which reached 134 people on Saturday, making it the state’s largest.

“There is a time bomb starting on Monday,” the principal said.

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“We’ve got community transmission, we’re putting 20 to 25 adults together in a room all day. I don’t know why they are not looking two or three weeks down the line.”

Manolya Moustafa, the head of science at a government school in Melbourne’s west, said there was insufficient space to maintain distance in the classroom.

“[Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton] himself said that the largest outbreak in Victoria, at Al-Taqwa College, was due to senior students being able to spread the virus in the same way as adults, yet these very students are being sent to school on Monday when community transmissions are out of control,” Ms Moustafa said.

The union for Catholic and independent school teachers argued on-site staffing should be minimised rather than having a default setting in which most teachers work at school.

Premier Daniel Andrews said a return to remote learning would be hard on many families, but there was “simply no alternative” if the lockdown was to succeed.

“We can’t have the best part of 700,000 students, as well as parents, moving to and from school, roaming around the community as if there wasn’t a stay-at-home order or as if there wasn’t a lockdown,” Mr Andrews said.

“That’ll put at direct risk us achieving our aim and that, of course, is to drive these numbers down at the end of the six-week period.”

Mr Andrews said he expected that Catholic and independent schools would follow the same remote learning regime.

Professor Sutton said it would have been irresponsible of him to recommend all students go back to school, given the state faces the biggest health crisis since the Spanish flu pandemic a century ago.

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“We have to throw absolutely everything at it; it’s the biggest public health challenge of our lifetime,” he said.

“It would have been irresponsible of me to have gone into a phase where we might even have increasing numbers day on day, to have kids going back to school.”

Education Minister James Merlino said that unlike the first phase of remote learning in term two, the “default setting” for teachers would be working on-site, although schools would have flexibility to have some teachers and staff working remotely.

But Professor Sutton baulked at recommending teachers wear masks in the classroom, despite issuing advice last week that people should wear them where they cannot be socially distant.

“Teaching is pretty tough with a mask on. They require those facial expressions, they need to be heard clearly,” Professor Sutton said.

Australian Principals’ Federation Victorian branch president Julie Podbury said schools also had a duty to educate children to the best of their ability in a heavily disrupted year.

“… we’ve still got to go forwards and we’ve still got to educate our kids the best we can, so that when we resume everyday school they’re not too far behind,” Ms Podbury said.

Parent Emma Read said she had mixed feelings about her children being schooled at home once again.

“I’m stressed, worried but also a bit relieved,” said Ms Read, of Heidelberg.

Back to school, at home: Emma Read, partner Paul Moloney and children Hugh, 7, and Bryn, 9.

Back to school, at home: Emma Read, partner Paul Moloney and children Hugh, 7, and Bryn, 9.Credit:Chris Hopkins

“It’s a bit of worry about how we’re going to manage all this again.”

From Monday, she and her partner, Paul Moloney, who are both working from home, will spend weekdays with their children Bryn, 9, and Hugh, 7, who won’t be returning to Heidelberg Primary School for term three.

The children are in years two and three and Ms Read said remote learning did not run smoothly last time, although their teachers provided amazing support.

“Trying to fit it all in while trying to hold down two full-time jobs, it was near-on impossible,” she said. “We were working at 11pm to keep our jobs rolling along.”

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