If Victorian teachers and education support staff need any vindication that schools were unsafe and should have stayed closed for face to face learning this term, they’ve got it.

The Victorian government released data in mid August showing schools have the second highest outbreak numbers and total infections after aged care centres. Since 1 June, there have been at least 630 positive cases in 69 clusters centred on schools.

What makes these figures so frightening is that students have spent hardly any time in class during this phase of the pandemic. Most students and staff were only in attendance for the last three weeks of term two (9 to 26 June). Over this time, daily infection rates in Victoria grew from five per day to 41, but as term three approached, there were well over 200 new infections per day.

The risk that this represented was crystal clear to teachers. They knew how difficult or impossible social distancing would be, and studies continued to emerge discrediting the notion that children are less likely to contract or transmit the disease.  

Government officials were well aware of the danger. In fact, the day before staff and students returned for term three, Victorian Chief Medical Officer Brett Sutton said, “Child to child transmission has become more apparent as we have tested more kids”.

Incredibly, at this same press conference, he insisted schools were “not a serious risk”.

The decision was made, and year 11, 12 and specialist schools went back to face to face learning on 13 July. It was a cold calculation about the economic impact of shutting down schools and managing the rest of the economy.

In the disastrous weeks that followed, daily Victorian infection rates ballooned well into the 600s. Dozens of schools were shut down because of outbreaks, and the Victorian government focused on blaming individuals instead of shutting down schools and non-essential workplaces.

The safety guidelines produced by the government lacked sufficient support for the teachers at greatest risk from the virus due to medical conditions like serious respiratory conditions. If they did not suffer from a compromised immune system, they did not meet the criteria for a medical exemption. Missing too was consideration for household members with compromised immune systems or other conditions who were at heightened risk from any infection brought home from school.

As pressure was mounting, Sutton sent a letter to all Victorian school staff about school safety on 31 July, denying the danger teachers and students were witnessing in schools. Incredibly, he claimed schools were safe, even though “maintaining a physical distance of 1.5 metres between students during classroom activities will not always be practical in education settings. Physical distancing is most important between adults”.

There’s a scientific consensus that physical distancing is the most important measure to control the spread of the virus. Research continues to show that the virus spreads through tiny aerosol droplets produced by regular speech and breathing. Yet, according to Sutton, Victorians were meant to believe that students studying indoors for hours on end would not be at risk, despite being in close proximity to each other.

The risks of school outbreaks had clearly been established. In March, there had been 52 cases liked to a Chilean high school. In April, 92 cases were linked to an Auckland school. And in May, 178 cases originated from a single high school in Israel.  Yet, according to Sutton, “transmission in school settings is uncommon, and the risk to staff and students in both mainstream and specialist settings remains low”. 

He had previously admitted that at Al Taqwa College in western Melbourne, “transmission in the school that was quite substantial. They are older kids, they tend to have more transmission that is akin to adults,” after that outbreak lead to 186 cases. Yet the Victorian government sent these high-risk students back in droves for college entrance scores. In Sutton’s letter, he had the nerve to “reassure” Victorians that “schools remain safe places for staff and students.”

His assertions that, “children are less impacted by the virus, they tend to have milder symptoms and are less likely to develop severe illness,” were hollow. The long-term effects of this virus, including mild cases, are unknown but potentially very serious. New studies continue to show that children and teenagers can contract and transmit the virus at high rates.

During those weeks, the health department was overrun with cases and unable to perform its duties creating disruptions in learning and chaos in many schools. Teachers, students, and parents were crying out about the lack of communication while they were stuck waiting for days or weeks to find out if they were a close contact. Yet Sutton claimed he was “confident in our ability to identify and respond appropriately when a student or staff member tests positive to coronavirus”.

He said “The vast majority of cases of coronavirus (COVID-19) observed in schools involve the student or staff member acquiring the virus in the community, and these cases have been well contained through reactive and temporary closures” – even while the numbers of cases with unknown sources continued to grow.

Within 48 hours, more than 300 school staff, parents and students had signed an open letter condemning Sutton’s dangerous “advice”.

Teachers were absolutely right to demand school closures, and it’s a crime that it took so long. Stage four restrictions and the accompanying school closures finally came on 2 August, just two days after Sutton’s extraordinary letter, pausing some of the madness. However, the economic motives behind the government’s reckless decision making hasn’t changed.

Since the start of the pandemic, there has been a tussle involving the giant corporations and governments who want to prioritise “business as usual” over public health. Schools have become key battle grounds for this contest, in both the first and second waves of the pandemic in Australia.

The tepid response of the teacher’s union leadership has been disappointing. Education workers were forced to take their students safety in their own hands, speaking out against the dangerous situations at schools and sub-branches had even passed motions for school closures. All the union leadership could muster was a request for principals to have more flexibility to close schools.

These union heads eventually got bailed out by the Victorian Government. When stage 4 lockdowns were introduced, schools were shut down and there hasn’t been a single public statement from the Australian Education Union about school safety since. This is an ominous sign.

School openings have been a major contest between public health and profit-driven “business as usual” in many parts of the world. In the US, both President Trump and many Democratic politicians have been pushing hard for schools to reopen as normal for the new school year. This has been staunchly and successfully resisted by some teacher unions, with the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) leading the way.

Lori Lightfoot, the Democratic mayor of Chicago, had been intent since May for teachers and students to return to classes in person as scheduled in early September, but the CTU did not take that lying down. The union launched a media blitz about the dangers of in-person learning, editorials and interviews by rank and file members were published in major outlets and the union maintained consistent organising drive to mobilise rank-and-file teachers. They hosted multiple massive, socially distanced protests and eventually threatened to strike if schools opened.

Two days after this gauntlet was thrown down, the mayor backed down and switched to remote learning.

Even after their victory, the CTU has continued to organise. It has been advocating for more reasonable expectations of students, promoting victories to take police out of schools and pushing for an expansion of internet access and other adequate support for teachers and families entering remote learning. 

The Chicago success story is no accident. During the 2000s, there was a massive rank and file campaign to democratise the union and replace the stodgy leadership. This culminated in a more militant union with an active rank and file who were able to carry out historic strikes in 2012 and 2019.

As infection numbers continue to fall in Melbourne, there will be more pressure to throw teachers and students back into the front lines of the pandemic. “New” guidance issued by the education department on 18 August reproduces Brett Sutton’s outdated, wrong and dangerous assurances about school safety from late July, word for word.  It’s time to build a rank and file movement that can amplify the voices of the brave Victorian school staff fighting to keep our communities safe.