NSW school returns to remote learning as spiralling Covid cases hit classrooms

At least one school in New South Wales has had to return to some days of remote learning amid surging Covid cases in students and staff.

The school is one of many struggling to deal with spiralling cases among young people, with educators admitting learning is suffering.

But the New South Wales education department says it is not planning to reintroduce masks in schools ahead of the general community.

Queanbeyan High School principal Jennifer Green wrote to parents advising them of the changes after efforts to source casual teachers and combine classes failed to address the severe shortages.

“Recent impacts from Covid-19 have meant that a number of teaching staff and / or students at Queanbeyan High School cannot come to school as they have tested positive for Covid-19,” she wrote on Monday.

“Due to the number of teachers on leave in addition to the permanent positions we have been unable to fill, we are moving to mixed mode delivery options.”

Year 11 and 12 students have been spared but other year levels will drop to three days a week in person learning and two days at home, with Green explaining the “best place for our students to learn is in the classroom” but that safety needed to be prioritised.

NSW Association of Catholic Principals president, Michael Egan, said running schools like “normal” had become impossible as case numbers surged.

“It’s not running normally, if you take it normally to be that a class has a competently trained teacher in that area in front of them. That’s just not happening,” he said.

“We’re providing large amounts of supervision rather than actual teaching. Subjects with a practical component, they just aren’t happening. You can’t have the casual teacher come in and do a science experiment with kids.”

Covid cases in under 20s have risen sharply – accounting for almost 29,000 of the 66,000 of total cases in the week ending 5 March – with fears the BA.2 Omicron subvariant could further accelerate transmission. Teens were the highest represented age group, with almost 18,000 testing positive over the week – up from 12,000 the week before.

Teachers and students in NSW had been required to do two rapid tests a week at the start of term, alongside the separation of year levels to minimise socialising and indoor mask-wearing.

President of the NSW Teachers Federation, Angelo Gavrielatos, criticised the government for removing mitigation strategies too quickly and said health advice “should prevail”.

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“It’s putting incredible pressure on our schools because it’s impacting absentee rates, not only of kids but of teachers.

“There should have been a steady graduated lifting of the risk mitigation strategies in order to monitor how each mitigation strategy was impacting our schools.”

The education department said it was auditing the number of rapid tests it had on hand in case surveillance testing was reintroduced.

But the department confirmed it would not reintroduce mask mandates in schools, unless the measure was reintroduced for the general public.

“Should the broader community settings for indoor mask-wearing change, we will continue to work closely with NSW Health to develop appropriate measures.”

The state’s health minister, Brad Hazzard, has repeatedly stated reintroducing lockdowns and other infection control measures was not his preference, instead encouraging people to get their boosters.

“Everybody is over it, putting it bluntly,” he said on Monday morning.

Hazzard said it was an absolute necessity for people to get the booster as soon as they could, with about 2 million eligible residents still yet to receive a third dose.

“That is the big problem,” Hazzard said.

He said it was likely the rate of infection would increase and more people would die.

“But we have to balance mental health issues, the economic issues, young people having their cognitive development, being able to go to school, all of the things which have been so destructive for two years,” he said.

However, Egan said he was still worried about the impact of Covid on the longer-term educational outcomes of students thanks to rising absenteeism and the lack of trained teachers.

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