Staggered return to schools disruptive for families, Sutton admits

Staggered return to schools disruptive for families, Sutton admits

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The staggered return of students to classrooms across Melbourne in a bid to minimise coronavirus outbreaks will be disruptive to families with children at different year levels, Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton has conceded.

While year 12 students return from Tuesday, a state government plan will involve grades prep to two returning to classrooms from October 18 for two to three days a week. Other grades will then gradually follow until all students are back at school for five days a week in November.

Students at St Brendan’s Primary School in Flemington returning to school in October last year after a COVID-19 shutdown.Credit:Jason South

Victorian schools have had six terms of moving in and out of lockdowns, and students in Melbourne have already missed more than 150 days of face-to-face learning because of the coronavirus pandemic.

One education and health expert said Victoria’s plan walked a fine line between the need to keep coronavirus cases low and getting as many students as possible back in school.

“There are some encouraging signs from northern-hemisphere countries that adult hospitalisation and intensive care unit numbers don’t jump dramatically when schools go back,” said Professor Sharon Goldfeld, a developmental paediatrician at the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute.

“But there is increased transmission in children, and so we do need to be mindful of that.”

Professor Sutton said on Monday that the staged return would be disruptive to families with children in different year groups, but the more time a child spent in school, the greater the risk of contracting coronavirus.

“The staggered return is to reduce that cumulative volume of kids who are coming together and potentially transmitting,” he said.

Professor Sharon Goldfeld.Credit:Rodger Cummins

The state opposition criticised the plan to stagger the return to school.

“Part-time face-to-face learning is almost as problematic as remote learning,” education spokesman David Hodgett said. “There is a huge burden on teachers with a hybrid model and students can struggle to get into the rhythm of schools.”

Schools that encounter a COVID-19 case will no longer be entirely plunged into two weeks of isolation measures, Professor Sutton said. Only the classes affected and those most at risk of spreading the virus will probably be required to isolate.

“We certainly won’t have the entire school quarantining for a full 14-day period,” he said. “The class most at risk [will be affected] but other classes won’t necessarily need to quarantine at home.”

Professor Goldfeld said minimising school closures was the correct approach. “The sensible thing to do is to look at where exactly the exposures are and to try and work out whether you close down the classroom, or you close down the year level; this sort of planning will be essential.”

In August, state Education Minister James Merlino said Victorian children had recorded the nation’s highest NAPLAN results and even improved on previous years despite 2020’s school shutdowns.

Professor Goldfeld warned there would probably be unequal outcomes from home learning between those with access to support and better technology, and those without.

Evidence from Britain suggested that children in homes with a lot of support from parents had embraced home learning, she said. “And those kids who didn’t have access to the things like parents who could be there all the time or access to devices or easy access to the internet have potentially done worse.”

She also warned parents that while they and their children would be excited by the return to classrooms, there would be an adjustment period for students.

“It will be fabulous for kids to be back at school. But there’ll be a couple of tough weeks as they readjust.”

The first of 51,000 air purifiers ordered by the state government will begin to be installed in classrooms this week. Two thousand will be installed first in schools in areas with high COVID-19 numbers.

Meanwhile, a poll of 44,000 Victorian teachers has found that 98.1 per cent said they had received a first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine and 78.1 per cent had both doses.

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