Rising Covid cases force some schools in NSW and Victoria to return to remote learning

Major staffing shortages have forced schools in New South Wales and Victoria back into remote learning as the new Omicron sub-variant BA.2 sees Covid cases rise.

NSW recorded 23,702 new Covid cases on Friday and seven deaths, with rates of infections in the state highest among those aged 10-19 years old. Victoria recorded 9,244 new cases and nine deaths.

The Victorian and NSW governments have resisted the reintroduction of mandatory Covid restrictions, instead placing individual responsibility on schools and parents before an anticipated increase in cases this winter.

A teacher at a western Sydney public school, who wished to remain anonymous, said “at least” 20 children had been absent from school every day in the past week due to testing positive or being required to isolate.

“In my class alone, we had seven students away today,” she said, adding that outbreaks among teachers were placing a huge strain on staff.

“It’s been extremely difficult to find casual teachers which has resulted in classes being split quite regularly,” she said.

“We suspect it’s because of fears around contracting Covid at school.”

She said the situation was harder because there was “no real way to manage outbreaks” at schools since restrictions lifted.

On 23 March, in response to “increasing Covid-19 cases in the community”, NSW Health allowed schools to introduce temporary measures like mask-wearing in the instance of a Covid outbreak.

Since term one, children have been able to continue to attend school in NSW if there’s a positive case in their class, as long as they do not have symptoms.

All positive cases must be registered with Service NSW and eligible children are required to be vaccinated.

In Victoria, twice-weekly rapid antigen testing is “strongly recommended” for students but there is no requirement to report results and children don’t need a negative test to attend school.

Free RATs have been made available for staff and students throughout term one, which may end early if recommended by health advice.

One parent based in Melbourne told Guardian Australia they had received notification that a positive Covid case had been detected in six classrooms across their child’s primary school in a single day this week. They said usually one or two classes had been affected.

Carinya school in the Sydney suburb of Mortdale was forced to close to face-to-face learning for a week due to a large Covid outbreak.

On 14 March, the NSW Department of Education sent a letter to parents and carers advising “recent impacts from Covid-19” had meant a number of staff, support officers and students had tested positive.

“We know the best place for our students to learn is in the classroom but the safety and wellbeing of our students and staff is the department’s number one priority,” the letter said.

It came four days after the NSW health minister, Brad Hazzard, warned Covid cases were expected to double in the state within six weeks as BA.2 spread.

While the school returned to face-to-face learning on 18 March, a further positive case was detected less than a week later.

Castle Hill high in Sydney also had to temporarily revert some students to studying from home due to staff shortages in the region.

The same situation occurred at Notre Dame college in the regional Victorian city of Shepparton, where the deputy principal, Jennifer Frisardi, said staff shortages had been looming for some time but was “brought … to a head” by the pandemic.

“There have been teachers who have chosen to retire earlier than they might have otherwise, sometimes as a result of the high rates of change and a sense of personal vulnerability which may not have arisen if not for Covid,” she said.

“We are also finding it increasingly challenging to entice casual relief teachers to our schools.”

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Earlier this month, a Covid outbreak at Queanbeyan high school forced students to return to some days of remote learning.

Staff at the school walked out on Thursday in protest over what they said was a lack of support from the NSW Department of Education in staffing the school.

“It’s not just because of Covid, however, Covid is just making it worse,” one said.

A teacher at nearby Karabar high, who wished to remain anonymous, told Guardian Australia their school had sent a letter to parents advising them of staffing shortages, and three Queanbeyan primary schools had also been forced to send cohorts home due to outbreaks.

A NSW Department of Education spokesperson said a “high number of staff” had been absent from a number of schools due to local case spikes, and that schools were remaining as “flexible as possible” by adopting a hybrid model of delivering classes.

Guidelines for backfilling staff released by the NSW health department recommend the use of casual teachers to manage Covid disruptions, including teachers from nearby schools and department-accredited staff in non-teaching roles.

As of 14 March, more than 350 non-teaching corporate staff had been deployed into schools and 1,799 final year teaching students were granted interim teaching approval for casual and temporary roles.

The department has also begun contacting retired teaches to consider casual or temporary work in response to the shortages.



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