“When my school closed it was in school holidays. People found out 13 days after they were in contact with this student that they had an infectious student in their class …. They won’t tell you the student’s name, they won’t even tell you their year level.” 

-Kim, secondary school teacher, Melbourne

“At my school we got the information about the positive case, at 10 or 11 last Monday night. As of lunch time yesterday (Saturday) the contact tracing hadn’t actually happened. The official line is that ‘contact tracing is continuing’ but we all know that it hasn’t even started.”

-Cathy, secondary school teacher, Melbourne

In the midst of a massive COVID-19 surge in Victoria, premier Daniel Andrews’ reopening schools for senior students was always risking disaster. Add an overrun or incompetent Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), and the risk is multiplied.

Infection and death rates have broken records in July, and schools have not been immune. The term started with three schools officially closed due to COVID-19 infections. By the end of the first day, the total was 24. There are currently 65 closed, while staff and large numbers of students at those still open are expected to risk their lives for the sake of university entrance rankings.

The government assures us that this arrangement is perfectly safe, protected as we are against this unprecedented threat by the mighty Victorian DHHS. This department, now overrun with cases to followup and avoiding comment to the media, underwent a classic neoliberal transformation last year. According to their annual report, the department cut or outsourced more than18 percent of its staff – around 2,500 workers – in just one year. Now we get to witness the fruits of this “streamlining” in the form of contradictory public health messaging, a chronic failure of contact tracing, and botched communication about handling positive COVID-19 diagnoses.

The DHHS is responsible for responding to COVID-19 outbreaks in workplaces, including identifying close contacts of confirmed cases, contacting those people, and giving instructions for isolation. But as this gutted agency is overrun with cases, this is frequently doesn’t happen. Teachers and students in affected schools, for example, are waiting for days or weeks to be officially advised about their level of exposure.

Four teachers from different high schools shared their experiences with Red Flag. Michael (names have been changed) is a Melbourne high school teacher. “About a week ago we found out a student had a positive case, so the school shut down. It was Sunday night, so we had to start remote teaching the next day, with no equipment since everything was at school… Supposedly [as of the following Sunday], contact tracing is still happening. The school could have done it in 15 minutes, but students and staff are still waiting to see if they are close contacts to this single case.”

With government agencies unable to come anywhere close to an adequate response, teachers are forced to take responsibilty for their health and that of their students. Physical distancing is impossible in many schools, as there just isn’t the capacity to spread classes out. There’s also the challenge of imposing physical distancing on teenagers during breaks, as one teacher told the Age, “the thought of trying to get them to stand 1.5 metres away from each other is like asking an elephant to skip rope … it’s not what teenagers do.”  

 And while the requirement regarding mask wearing is positive, in the face of a virus that travels as aerosol droplets, the utility of a face covering is reduced when large groups meet indoors for hours on end.

Kim explains the situation at her school: “Ventilation is an issue [to prevent infection] but it falls upon individual teachers to decide to open windows. When the kids come in and complain about it being cold, saying that the other classes don’t have their windows open, the teacher gets in trouble”.

As students in years seven to ten learn remotely, whether or not teachers are allowed to teach them safely from home is at the discretion of principals. Some work from home, while others are required to come in for yard duty then “teach remotely” from their classrooms. “So if you’ve got a good principal and they’ve got a bit of flexibility,” says Kim, “then they can make some good decisions. But if you’ve got a bad principal, they’re still going to be a tyrant in the workplace.”

Some of these “good principals” are subsequently being undercut by the education department. After the Age reported that staff and management at Melbourne High had agreed to teach remotely several days per week, the principal who made this arrangement was overruled by the department.

The department is not known for communicating well with school staff at the best of times, but this has turned into a dangerous farce during the second outbreak. Teachers no longer receive even the basic daily emails about changes in policy. In fact, the new manual for safe operation was riddled with contradictions and only emailed to staff the night before classes started.

As they watch schools close around them, students and teachers face constant fear and uncertainty. “Every day when you leave school, you grab all your things,” says Anne, “because there are neighbouring schools that went into closure… you don’t know when our school will shut down.”

Once schools are shut, teachers don’t know when they are expected to return. Michael explains: “On Thursday night we were told we aren’t coming in on Friday because contact tracing is still happening. On Sunday night at 11pm we heard that we weren’t coming in on Monday, and last night at 10pm we heard we weren’t coming in today. Day by day, right at the last minute, we’re being told if contact tracing is complete or not. At the same time, we’re being told ‘be ready to pick up your phones! You may be a close contact!’ The uncertainty of it is what’s wearing down students.” Add to that the worry about potential infection and the possibility of passing it on to families, and the impact on teaching and learning is predictable.

The situation is further complicated when some students and teachers are told to isolate but others remain at school. Teachers’ workloads are increased and education quality suffers as Michael explains, “We’ve got half of our year 12s in a two-week quarantine and at least four VCE teachers are also in quarantine. If we go back to teaching on site, half of year 12s won’t get taught. We can’t do both on-site and remote. We don’t have the resources to have someone supervising a class while teachers are online doing remote learning.  It makes sense to just continue with remote learning [for all year 11 and 12 students] but that’s against department policy.”

In the early days of the pandemic, teacher unions around Australia refused to endorse school closures until a widespread, largely spontaneous  grassroots movement withdrew more than a quarter of students from schools – prompting the Victorian premier to finally declare an early end to term one. This time around, the initial response of the Australian Education Union has been just as weak.

Despite this, rank-and-file teachers continue to organise. Union sub-branches at several schools have passed motions for school closures as surveys and petitions circulate through grassroots networks. When union organisers and officials are confronted with this pressure, they have tried to stall its momentum, repeating false government claims and misrepresenting democratically passed sub-branch motions as individual complaints.  

On 28 July the Australian Principals Federation called for all Melbourne schools to return to remote learning. Along with media interest and the rising concern of rank and file teachers, this finally prompted the union to issue a statement stating that the government has “failed to genuinely support the health and safety of staff.” However the union still stopped short of calling for a full shutdown, instead just requesting more flexibility at a school level.

So Melbourne school staff are left to deal with a situation which is dangerous to health and life, and much too unstable and stressful for effective teaching and learning. It seems that no one is coming to save us, except ourselves – so we’d better keep pushing!