Principals have this morning demanded an end to face-to-face classes for senior students in the lockdown regions of Melbourne and Mitchell Shire as Victoria’s coronavirus cases reach record highs.
Principals, teachers and parents have told Crikey the Victorian Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) has strict rules around communication but are slow to inform families about COVID-19 cases and isolation rules.
More than one in 10 schools in the state has been shut down, with 58 closed as of yesterday morning. Some schools have closed multiple times this year. Only students completing VCE subjects, and those in specialist schools, are attending face-to-face classes.
One music teacher who teaches across different Melbourne schools told Crikey she was extremely concerned.
“The Department of Education and the principals have given no thought to the fact music lessons are given in small rooms,” she said. “Brass, woodwind and singing involve air propulsion, so with the aerosol transmission there are extra concerns.”
Studies have found choirs spread COVID-19 easily through singing, with similar concerns for musicians.
“Given the escalation for things, it doesn’t make sense we’re out there face to face,” she said. “The feeling is we proved in term two we can do remote teaching well. Why is it we have to be out there taking these risks?”
The teacher suspects there’s been little coverage on the huge amount of school closures because the Department of Education wants to have all VCE students taught the same way.
“It’s almost like they’re keeping a lid on this, clearly they don’t want parents to get scared,” she said.
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One school she taught at had an active COVID-19 case. She only found out when her daughter informed her, and it took five days for the DHHS to get in contact with her.
The teacher wasn’t told whether the positive case was a student or teacher, or the class they were in.
A spokeswoman for Parents Victoria told Crikey that principals have strict instructions around what they can and can’t say to families. “Schools do not identify the individual students or staff detected positive to the community,” she said.
“There is a specific process our schools have to comply with [before] the school principal is permitted [to] communicate with the relevant parents or carers of students possibly impacted by a COVID19-positive … employee or student.”
The problem is waiting for this permission.
Trinity College Colac found that a student had tested positive for COVID-19 on Friday July 17. Principal Paul Clohesy told Crikey the DHHS had told the school the person was supposed to remain anonymous.
“The kids would find out through the tracing system anyway. We’re in a country town,” he said. “We felt our staff needed to know so they could alleviate some concerns.”
They sought permission from the student and the student’s family to identify the case and told teachers who it was. They then gathered the year level to inform them a student (without revealing their name) had tested positive and that the DHHS would be in contact.
“The DHHS informed us that all class members and teachers would be close contacts, so we get a spreadsheet ready and send it to them,” Clohesy said.
But by Monday no one had been contacted. “The DHHS didn’t get to it.”
Instead, Clohesy emailed the DHHS and asked if he could send out an official email to inform close contacts what to do.
“I just assumed they were overwhelmed in Colac with a huge number of cases coming out, all the contact tracing,” he said.
It was a similar story for Clever Kids Childcare in Ashburton, where there is a cluster of at least 21 cases. One parent told Crikey it took almost a week to receive information from the DHHS. Instead, at midnight on Saturday, the centre forwarded families the letter the DHHS planned to send out.
It wasn’t until Tuesday — five days after the confirmed case — that the DHHS got in contact, simply sending families a text message with the link to a page on Whispir (a messaging platform contracted by the DHHS). The page contained incorrect information, advising parents their child only had to quarantine for six days.
Victorian shadow minister for education Cindy McLeish told Crikey the department was under-resourced and ineffective.
“A positive diagnosis within a school or childcare centre requires swift action and relies on clear and consistent advice being provided immediately, to stop the spread of this virus,” she said.
“DHHS simply does not have the resources to do its job effectively. Contact tracing is not being done, phone calls are not being returned or they get passed from pillar to post without any real information.”
The DHHS, Australian Principals’ Federation, Victoria Principals Association, Victorian Association of State Secondary Schools, and the Australian Education Union Victoria did not respond to Crikey’s request for comment.