Students sent home, teachers under pressure as flu rips through schools

Cases of the flu are tearing through Victorian schools, with school-aged children making up almost half the total reported number of flu cases so far this month.

In an interdepartmental alert issued on Wednesday, the Health Department warned senior Victorian education staff that flu cases have more than doubled each week for the past three weeks, and that children and teenagers are the worst affected.

Forty-five per cent of all influenza notifications reported so far this month are for people aged five to 19, the alert said. That age group accounted for only 25 per cent of notifications in Victoria’s last significant flu period in 2019, it said.

The alert has prompted some schools to consider encouraging students to return to mask wearing, although Education Minister James Merlino said there is no plan to bring back a mask mandate.

Surging flu cases and ongoing COVID-19 infections have created ongoing staff shortages across the state. Teachers are running classes remotely from isolation and campuses have sent whole year levels home as staff pressures create concerns for teacher wellbeing.

Shepparton’s Notre Dame College principal John Cortese said on Wednesday that staff shortages had led them to send a different year level home each day for self-directed study over a two-week period.

Cortese said they’d had between 55 and 65 staff off sick since the end of term one. He said they’d merged classes, but could not continue to ask teachers to take extra duties.

We’ve had staff being fantastic in supporting each other when they’ve had colleagues away but the agreement says they can only do so many extras. The year’s allotment has been exhausted, he said.

There’s been a suggestion that you can put five classes in a stadium with one teacher . . . It’s bordering on ridiculous. It’s a safety issue for the students and for the teachers. We are better off having students work from home.

Greater Shepparton Secondary College, one of the largest schools in regional Victoria, also sent some year levels home this week due to staff absences. At Camberwell High School, year 11 and 12 students are leaving school at lunchtime due to staffing issues.

Bacchus Marsh Grammar principal Andrew Neal said the school had many staff and student absences due to COVID, the flu and gastro but was trying desperately to remain open for classroom teaching and we haven’t had to send any year levels home yet.

Neal said he had warned parents this week that the school could be forced to do this if staff absences grew.

We are starting to look at collapsing some of our activities; we are looking at camps, any external activities where we have got to send kids and staff out of the school, Neal said.

I am also checking my supply of masks in case we need to go back to masks. If the numbers continue to climb within the school then I think we will be looking at those kinds of ameliorations.

Principals Association of Victorian Catholic Secondary Schools president Darren Egberts said the flu had overtaken COVID-19 as the main source of staff absences at many schools. This included teachers who have to stay home to care for sick children.

Teachers at St Margaret’s Berwick Grammar, an independent school in Melbourne’s south-east, have at times taught remotely while in isolation due to COVID-19.

The school had also run several hybrid face-to-face/remote lessons this term so students who were isolating at home could tune in.

Eleven state government schools have used remote learning since the start of the year, most of then for just a single year level on a single day.

Victorian Principals Association president Andrew Dalgleish said it was a perfect storm.

There’s an anxiety building up as we are heading into flu seasons, he said. We know there’s a shortage of casual relief teachers there. Everyone is doing everything they can to minimise the impact on kids. Kids and parents want continuity and yet there is still uncertainty.

Australian Council of State School Organisations chief executive officer Dianne Giblin said it had become difficult for children to re-engage in learning when there were constant changes in their classrooms.

This would have a profound effect on the mental health of both students and school staff, she said.

Many parents are concerned, particularly when their young kids have a number of teachers over time. It causes a bit of disruption to their continuity of learning.

Australian Education Union Victorian branch president Meredith Peace said the union remained extremely concerned about the pressure on staff as a result of the ongoing high level of absences due to COVID-19 and other illnesses.

Victorian schools removed the obligation to wear masks at the start of term two. Rapid antigen tests continue to be sent home but there is no longer a requirement to test twice a week.

Merlino said schools were responding to challenges at their local level.

He said the challenge of the pandemic had evolved from remote learning to staffing. Faced with a shortage of casual relief teachers, principals were stepping into the classroom. Retired teachers and final-year teaching students are also taking classes.

The key thing for me, key criteria, for parents and carers is that schools are open and students are learning face to face with their peers, he said.

There may be a day where the teacher is away, so you bring the two grade six classes together.

There is a pool of 1000 retired or pre-service school staff. So far this year, 335 final-year initial teacher education students have been granted permission to teach in Victorian and Catholic schools.

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