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Hundreds of Sydney schools could remain closed despite back to school plan

Schools can only reopen in October if statewide double dose vaccinations reach 70 per cent – estimated to occur in mid-October – and if their local government area has fewer than 50 cases of community transmission per 100,000 people over a fortnight.

Under those rules, students who attend schools in areas that are designated hotspots would not be able to return. However, students living in hotspots but attending schools outside them can still go to class.

In the eight local government areas with more than 400 cases per 100,000 people – the community transmission figures are not available for council areas – there are more than 230,000 students studying at more than 650 schools.

The infection rate in the south-western Sydney local health district was 224.1 cases per 100,000 people in the August 7 surveillance report, and the rate in western Sydney was 110.8 cases per 100,000. Across the rest of the state’s local health districts, there were 25.5 infections per 100,000.

NSW Labor leader Chris Minns said the back to school plan left students in hotspot areas “in limbo” with no plans for additional support or a guaranteed return to school.

“The NSW government must ensure all students can return to face-to-face learning,” he said

One principal in an LGA of concern said several secondary students were very sick with COVID-19, and almost none were on site each day.

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“My own view is that without a significant decrease in cases before 25 October we will not return, and we will not be able to do a face-to-face HSC,” they said. “We have to hope the numbers drop… they are still rising.”

The government insisted HSC exams will go ahead despite being delayed until November 9, with results to be issued in January. “The timing of the 9th is related around the vaccination program,” said NSW Education Standards Authority chief executive Paul Martin.

Some examinations might be cut from the timetable, which will be revealed in September.

A meeting of more than 300 independent school heads on Friday strongly supported written exams involving a suite of subjects that would be representative of the candidature. “They particularly requested that the timetable for the HSC exams be put out as soon as possible,” said the chief executive of the Association of Independent Schools NSW, Geoff Newcombe.

Dozens of students who contacted the Herald said they were devastated by the decision to prolong the exam period, citing fears for their health, ongoing mental strain and exhaustion from months of lockdown.

School staff will also have to be vaccinated by November 8. There was no clarity on whether the mandate would extend to after-school care staff. The NSW Department of Education employs about 130,000 people, the Catholic sector 31,000 and the independent sector more than 28,000.

They would be given priority, beginning at Qudos arena from September 6.

A Department of Education Survey found about 67 per cent had already had one dose, 17 per cent intended to get their first dose in the next month, and 9.4 per cent did not intend to get one in the next month, although that could include people who had booked for October. About one per cent could not get vaccinated.

School staff will be given priority vaccine access ay Qudos Bank Arena from September 6, after jabs became mandatory.

School staff will be given priority vaccine access ay Qudos Bank Arena from September 6, after jabs became mandatory.Credit:Brook Mitchell

The voluntary survey did not ask whether staff objected to vaccination, or what area they lived in.

However, Christian Schools Australia said the mandate created significant problems for its schools. It cited a COVID-19 Recovery Tracker report that found about 15 per cent of those who had not been vaccinated did not intend to do so.

“If the staff in Christian schools are representative of the wider population we can expect up to 10% of teachers and other staff to have genuine concerns about vaccination”, said this Christian Schools Australia Director of Public Policy, Mark Spencer.

“Christian schools, indeed any schools, will struggle to continue to provide high quality education if that number of staff refuse to be vaccinated”.

The head of the NSW Teachers Federation Angelo Gavrielatos said he had been asking for teachers to be given priority for a year.

[The mandate has] potential impact on the employment of teachers that will require us to have further discussion with the department,” he said. “There are workforce issues to be managed. That said, we will encourage our members to be vaccinated.”

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Craig Petersen, the head of the Secondary Principals Council, welcomed the decision to mandate vaccinations. “Overall I think this is a measured and reasonable approach to how we return to school,” he said. “It’s a sensible approach and it’s going to give us the best opportunity to do it safely.”

Jordana Hunter, the head of the school education program at the Grattan Institute, said it was “really positive to see NSW working hard to try to find ways to get kids back to school. We know being away from school for a significant amount of time has impacts on kids.”

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