As students, staff and families across Victoria prepare for the beginning of the school year, the Victorian government is introducing a suite of measures to curb virus spread in schools and minimise disruption to learning.
Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews and Minister for Education James Merlino today announced a plan to keep education settings open while taking measures to protect students and staff - with surveillance testing, ventilation, vaccinations and workforce planning for the 2022 school year.
Most students will return to school on Monday, January 31.
Rapid antigen testing will be in place for at least the first four weeks of term one, in line with NSW.
The government will deliver more than 14 million RATs to schools and early childhood education and care services, including 6.6 million tests to be delivered in the first week of term.
Twice-weekly surveillance testing will be strongly recommended for all primary and secondary school students and staff, and early childhood education and care staff, twice-weekly at home before school or childcare.
Students and staff at specialist schools will be recommended to test five days each week due to the higher risk of severe illness for medically vulnerable children.
Parents and carers are expected to be asked to pick up the rapid antigen tests directly from schools.
School and early childhood staff will be added to the list of workers in key sectors who must receive a third dose of a COVID-19 vaccine by February 25 if they are already eligible, or within three months and two weeks of receiving a second dose to continue working in education settings.
Victorian chief health officer Professor Brett Sutton has advised a third dose will help ensure continued protection for this workforce, most notably individuals with significant underlying health conditions.
He also noted that a mandate may help to mitigate against the risk of outbreaks in these settings. The
CHO has further advised that Victoria is experiencing unprecedented and elevated rates of community transmission, and education settings are likely to be linked to a significant number of cases once the academic year commences after the holiday period.
Ventilation and outdoor learning
Improving ventilation is a key measure the government is implementing to slow the spread of the virus around schools, particularly in high-risk areas like staff rooms.
All 51,000 air purification devices that were ordered will be delivered to government and low-fee non-government schools for the first day of term one.
More than 1800 schools have applied for a shade sail grant, with grants progressively being rolled out and shade sail construction already underway at more than 300 of these schools to allow more outdoor classrooms.
Addressing staff shortages
In light of potential significant but short-term staffing challenges in schools and early childhood services in term one, the government has classified education staff as critical workers - allowing household contacts to voluntarily continue working if they are asymptomatic and return daily negative rapid antigen tests.
The government has also launched a pool of inactive teachers, education support staff, retired principals and surge administrative support staff for schools to access to cover any COVID-19-related workforce shortages.
The government will implement a tiered program to assist schools struggling with staffing shortages.
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At the first level, schools will be required to utilise their usual relief teachers and casual support staff to fill gaps in their workforce.
At tier two, schools may have to condense classes in venues like gyms to ensure students are being educated.
At tier three, schools can access the government pool of retired teachers, final-year education students and other support staff.
The way COVID-19 cases are managed and reported in education settings will change from term one in a bid to reduce the burden on schools and early childhood services.
Schools and kindergartens will be required to inform staff, parents and carers when there is a positive case and will provide advice on any steps families are required to take.
Mask wearing will continue, with students in year three and above required to wear masks indoors.
Teachers will be required to wear masks at all times when not actively teaching or communicating with students.
The state government will deliver 30 million surgical masks to schools in the first four weeks of term, with 5.8 million surgical masks to be delivered in the first week.
Mr Merlino said children can continue to wear cloth masks, but the use of surgical masks is recommended.
Remote learning will be considered only as a 'localised, short-term last resort", says the state government.
But when students are required to isolate as a close contact or positive case, the Education Department will provide a suite of online resources for students in Prep to Year 10, ensuring they have activities and work to complete.
More than 29 per cent of children aged 5-11 have now had one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, and the government is working to ensure all children in this cohort have access to two doses by the end of term one - with 30 pop-up vaccination clinics opening on school sites, alongside grants to pharmacies and GPs to deliver vaccines at schools.
There are 66,000 appointments available for children aged 5 to 11 in state-run centres over the next 30 days, and many more through primary care - and all families are urged to book their children in as soon as possible.