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Alarm over VCE classes as school shutdowns grow

Teachers had demanded a full return to remote learning but Melbourne High’s principal approved two days each week after a meeting between the school, WorkSafe and the Education Department.

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The school is attended by about 650 year 11 and 12 students from Melbourne and parts of regional Victoria.

Health and safety representatives said the large movement of students on public transport and big class sizes put staff at risk.

“In the opinion of the health and safety representative and the school nurse, staff at Melbourne High are at risk of an outbreak similar to that seen recently at Al-Taqwa in Truganina,” said the cease-work order, which was dropped in negotiations.

“It would be an immediate threat to the health and safety of all staff if they were to comply with the direction to attend the workplace.”

Schools in metropolitan Melbourne and Mitchell Shire are providing remote learning for students from prep to year 10 until at least August 19.

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A spokesman for the Education Department said all VCE and VCAL students, including year 10 students undertaking VCE or VCAL studies, would continue to undertake face-to-face learning following advice from the Victorian Chief Health Officer that it was safe to do so.

He said schools were following advice to reduce the risk of transmission, such as implementing temperature checks and wearing of masks.

But VCE teachers and specialist schools have raised concerns about being ordered back to face-to-face learning, with more than a dozen schools reporting COVID-19 cases since term three resumed on July 13.

Northcote and Fitzroy high schools are the latest campuses to report cases.

Michael Fawcett, principal of Homestead Senior Secondary College in Point Cook, said the return of senior students during Melbourne’s second surge of the pandemic was “potentially unworkable”, given the size of the cohorts and the lack of social-distancing abilities.

“[The virus is] real; it’s definitely in schools now,” Mr Fawcett said.

He said schools with years 11 and 12 felt unsafe.

“Out in the west we’ve got massive schools now. Even at the VCE level, there’s cohorts of 300 to 600 in some of those schools that have been hit. How do you manage that? It’s unmanageable.

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“Everyone is trying their best. The department supports you when you get them [a COVID-19 case], but it’s just the nature of sending large cohorts back to school in the midst of a second wave.”

Melbourne High School, WorkSafe and the Australian Education Union were contacted for comment.

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