Just how reckless is the Victorian school reopening?
Just how reckless is the Victorian school reopening?
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Victorian schools are returning to face-to-face learning, and those in New South Wales will follow from 18 October. According to Victorian Education Minister James Merlino, speaking at a press conference at the start of the month, coronavirus transmission risks will be kept “as low as possible” through “mitigations already in place”—a combination of staff vaccinations, student testing, 51,000 air filters and staggered pick-up and drop-off times.

It sounds great. The problem is that his claims don’t stack up. Far from finding “mitigations already in place”, school staff have been scrambling for answers—and for safety measures they can put in place themselves.

Fewer than 20 percent of the year twelve students returning to class in Victoria were even requested to get a COVID-19 test (the minister said everyone from a hot spot would be “required” to get one). There’s currently no system in place for regular testing of the 62,000 year twelve students who are on site daily, nor of school staff.

Vaccines are meant to be the central pillar of reopening. But many staff are not fully vaccinated and are not required to be until mid-December. Air filters have been ordered, but very, very few are in place in classrooms or staff rooms or bathrooms or other shared spaces.

With the virus surging in Victoria, it’s no surprise that positive cases emerged almost immediately in schools. There is no publicly available guidance on what the contact tracing and isolation requirements are.

What should this teacher do?

She’s booked to get her second dose in a week and a half. Just a couple of days after that, before her vaccination reaches anything like its full effect, she’s meant to be back in a portable classroom full of 7-year-olds. The school is in an area with a lot of COVID—one of the 22 “hot spot postcodes” identified by the Department of Education and singled out for testing of year twelve students. But the school doesn’t seem to be eligible for any of the air filters ordered by the state government.

The portable classroom, which is the main workspace for this teacher, has twenty windows. Only a couple of them open.

Like plenty of people who grow up working class, this teacher has underlying health problems that put her at extra risk if she gets infected. But because she’s not “immunocompromised”, she’s not eligible for a medical exemption from return to face-to-face teaching. Bringing the virus home to her partner, who is also not yet fully vaccinated, is another concern.

There would probably be parents and students just as willing as this teacher to continue some form of remote learning, at least until everyone who can be is fully vaccinated. But Victoria’s Department of Education and Training school operations guide requires all students and their teachers to return to class.

A reckless reopening

According to a report in the Age, Victorian Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton wanted to delay any return to school until 80 percent of the 16-and-over population were fully vaccinated. He was overruled. It’s currently below 60 percent, and half of year twelve students have had only one dose.

COVID-19 is a vicious disease that can seriously mess with many thousands of people’s short-term and long-term health—including that of young people. Yet, joining the year twelves over the next month will be another 400,000 high school students, most of them only partially vaccinated—and another half a million primary school students, all of them with zero vaccination protection.

Somewhere between 1 and 3 percent of unvaccinated children and adolescents who contract the virus will get so sick they will have to be hospitalised. So if the reopening goes badly and each of the 558,354 primary school students get the virus—which many experts say is likely in the long run, without low community spread and strong, multilayered mitigations—that’s a minimum of 5,000 Victorian children in hospital. That’s (roughly) a doubling of annual child and adolescent hospital admissions, at a minimum.

Many more will be affected for months or longer by the debilitating long-term energy loss and brain fog known as “long COVID”. Exactly how many is still a matter of debate. In September, a major UK study, led by University College London and Public Health England researchers, found that up to one in seven adolescents had symptoms lasting at least twelve weeks after infection. Long COVID seems to be reduced, though not eliminated, by vaccination.

So by far the best option is not to get COVID. And not to have schools as major transmission sites.

In the week Victoria’s school reopening began, the OzSAGE expert group released guidance for minimising the risk of transmission in schools. The document gives detailed suggestions, but the basic approach is straightforward: “To ensure the safe operation of schools and avoid disruption to children’s education, it is crucial to keep community transmission at low levels, while putting mitigation measures in place to reduce the risk of in-school transmission”.

In Victoria though, the mitigation measures are far from adequate, and community transmission is out of control. The state’s rolling average is running at more than 1,400 positive cases each day. Our very high “positivity rates”—more than 2 percent of tests show a positive result—indicate that there is probably a lot more of the virus out there. The army is driving our ambulances and there are giant triage tents outside our hospitals. Yet face-to-face schooling is being rushed back, over the objections of the chief health officer.

Where are the air filters?

Merlino and Andrews can’t mention the figure of 51,000 air filters often enough. Investing in these units is an important recognition of the crucial role that aerosols (produced by speech and breath) can play in spreading the virus. HEPA filters can reduce this risk. So 51,000 of them would do a lot of good, even though the number works out at only 24 units for each school—nowhere near enough to cover every classroom, staff room, bathroom and reception area.

But the real problem is that today there are far, far fewer than 51,000 air filters in Victorian schools. The rollout is said to be happening over “weeks and months”, but no specific timeline is available. A journalist asking whether every classroom would have one by the end of term four was simply fobbed off without an answer by Merlino.

A school where one of the much-heralded ventilation audits has happened has still not been given a written report. The only information provided is that ventilation is “OK”—apart from in one block where the windows don’t open! Not a single air filter has been provided.

So the reality is that the “ventilation revolution” isn’t going to happen quickly enough to stop widespread exposure to a dangerous virus during Victoria’s rushed school reopening.

Where’s the testing?

Eight thousand students in 22 “hot spot” suburbs were asked by their schools to get tested before the General Achievement Test on 5 October. As a result, 33 COVID-positive students were detected. They didn’t sit the test and therefore didn’t spend three hours breathing out virus-laden aerosols for their fellow students and staff to inhale. But since only 20 percent of students sitting the GAT were tested, there were always going to be other cases. The morning after the GAT, at least four schools reported positive cases among students. More have emerged since.

Surveillance testing is an important tool for getting on top of positive cases early. Yet year twelves in Victoria are back in class, with zero regular testing happening. This might change soon, with rapid antigen tests now approved for home use from 1 November and the Victorian government announcing that they will be widely used in health settings. In the meantime, the rushed return to school is happening without this basic public health measure.

And when there is a case?

Contact tracing and isolation of contacts are crucial to stop one positive case from infecting large numbers. But there is no clarity about who should be classified as a close contact in a Victorian school, and what happens next. There is literally nothing in writing available for teachers or school communities about classification or contact tracing in the school operations guide or on government websites. That makes it very hard to ensure proper oversight or discussion by staff, their union or health and safety representatives.

In schools, as in many other places, the emphasis is shifting from clear rules to ambiguous, flexible, “nuanced” rules that allow management—in this case the Department of Education and Training—to emphasise business as usual over anything else. Asked about procedures after the positive cases at the GAT, Victorian Health Minister Martin Foley said:

“In regards to the other potentially exposed students, this is one of the areas where the more nuanced approach depending on your vaccination status, the location where you may have been exposed, the period for which you may have been exposed, the measures around mitigating that—whether they be masked, were they social distancing—as we see those now play out increasingly in situations like education, like retail, like warehousing, we’ll see different arrangements regarding furloughing.

“So we’re confident that it will be a minimal impact [on school operations]. Each case has to be determined on its merits; each location has to be determined on its merits. It’s early days yet. We’re looking forward to those settings continue to deliver the VCE.”

The detail about which procedures are being followed are being withheld from the people who are most affected by them: staff, students and parents. But the move away from strict health measures and towards widespread infection is clear.

If we’re serious about limiting the spread of COVID, making a contest on contact tracing is crucial. In school districts around the world, there have been significant disputes over the level of isolation required for a positive case. In the UK, Prime Minister Boris “let the bodies pile high” Johnson has abolished any requirements for contacts to isolate, along with masks and any other mitigation measures in schools. A massive rate of infection is the predictable result.

Internationally, the Chicago Teachers Union is a decent model for a union pushing for detailed, concrete mitigation measures. They haven’t won every round, but they’ve made a better contest than most in defence of public health and workplace safety.

Remote options, masks and distancing

One of the measures proposed by OzSAGE is to have a remote option for teaching and learning. Overseas, the demand for a remote option has also been a significant part of the public campaigning of the Chicago Teachers Union.

Especially in conditions of widespread community spread, many parents and students would prefer remote education options. They will be needed in any case if large numbers of students go into isolation after exposures. So why not let teachers who would prefer to teach the year out remotely, teach the kids in iso?

Guidelines for the GAT specified that students must be spread out, with four square metres per student, which is the current Victorian density limit for indoor workplaces. However, even this minimal requirement for spacing doesn’t apply to classrooms.

Masks can play a crucial role in reducing transmission. It’s a positive that Victorian authorities have now mandated masks for grade three and up. San Francisco mandates masks for all year levels in its school system. Along with high vaccination levels among teenagers and the general community, and other mitigation measures such as ventilation, this has helped keep transmission in San Francisco schools to very low levels.

Given that teachers have to work at very close quarters with students in a classroom, having the school authorities supply N95 masks and fit test them should be a no-brainer.

Where’s the information?

A massive threat to health and safety should spark a public discussion of everything to do with reopening. Each positive case in a school is a threat to health; it should also be an opportunity to learn what works and what doesn’t, and to revise the approach. Plentiful information and open discussion are the foundation of any effective safety regime. But it’s just not happening.

It’s not just the procedures for contact assessment, contact tracing and isolation that are being kept from the people who need the information most. School management and the Department of Education and Training seem to be moving heaven and earth to stop listing school sites as “closed”.

Nevertheless, the department has already reported twenty schools closed, with fewer than 10 percent of students back, and for only a few days. Last year, the list of school closures was a source of vital information for school staff, students and parents, and a source of embarrassment for the government, which eventually ended its disastrous experiment in maintaining “business as usual” for year twelve students amid spiralling cases, as dozens of schools closed due to exposures.

It’s even more remarkable—in fact, gobsmacking—that the Australian Education Union Victoria website and Facebook pages are silent on the return to face-to-face teaching. The first all-member email to union members about the greatest challenge to health and safety in the history of the union was sent on 8 October, days after the reopening began, and said little of substance.

Union members should be able to rely on their union to point out publicly and seriously the problems with the reopening plan, gather data and make it public, and promote public discussion. But there’s been none of this from the AEU Victoria branch. Meanwhile, the NSW Teachers Federation has condemned the revised timetable for schools to reopen in that state, through which all students will return by the end of October. But what, if any, union follow-up action will result is far from clear.

So what can school staff do?

Staff at many schools are scrambling to respond to the urgent threats to health and safety posed by Victoria’s reckless school reopening. One checklist being circulated includes the following outcomes already achieved or in progress:

  • Buying portable air filtration units (the school has not been allocated any)
  • The occupational health and safety team has done a rapid audit of each school space, prioritising the best ventilated classrooms for the staggered return
  • All windows and doors to remain open during the day
  • CO2 meters (bought by individual staff online) are being used to monitor air quality, with the occupational health and safety team buying more
  • Serious investigation of the procedure for contact tracing and isolation, to achieve staff/union/health and safety representative oversight of this crucial measure.

Practical self-organisation of staff has to aim at the best mitigation measures possible. This will not be easy where union sub-branches and health and safety representative structures have been run down. And it’s made immeasurably harder by the public silence of the union.

Often it will be necessary to start small, by talking with just a few other workmates. Achieving an extra air filter is not nothing. Making a contest with local or higher-up management over information or procedures is not nothing. All of this can make a concrete difference to how many people get infected and build up collective strength for the many challenges to come.

Practical steps should go hand in hand with public campaigning to highlight the need for urgent changes in this rushed return to school and to delay the return until mitigations are actually in place. This is not easy with the union playing no public role. Building groups such as Health Before Profits, to create a larger public political presence for those speaking out against a reckless reopening, is a crucial part of the equation.

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