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Victorian coronavirus schooling rules for year 11 and 12 VCE students 'inflexible', unions say

ABC News logo ABC News 30/07/2020 By Leonie Thorne
a person standing in front of a laptop: Currently VCE and VCAL students across Victoria still attend school on-campus. (ABC News: Tim Swanston, File photo) © Provided by ABC Health Currently VCE and VCAL students across Victoria still attend school on-campus. (ABC News: Tim Swanston, File photo)

The Victorian Government's requirement for all year 11 and 12 students to attend school in person is causing anxiety for school principals and making staff concerned for their safety, unions representing the education sector say.

Prep to year 10 students in Melbourne and the Mitchell Shire have been learning from home since July 20.

Currently Victoria's VCE and VCAL students, as well as special school students, are required to attend school in person.

But the Australian Education Union (AEU) and the Independent Education Union (IEU) say the policy is inflexible and "failing our school communities".

There are 72 schools across Victoria which are currently closed due to coronavirus: 61 government schools, nine Catholic schools and two independent schools.

Nineteen early childhood services are closed.

The unions want the State Government to give school principals more flexibility and the power to implement home learning programs for their students when required.

AEU Victorian branch president Meredith Peace said many union members were concerned about their safety and the safety of their students.

"It is leaving our principals with the responsibility to manage incredibly difficult circumstances for their schools, without having the capacity to make important decisions," she said.

The Victorian Government's rationale for keeping year 11 and 12 students on campus was to avoid VCE students falling out of step with their counterparts outside of the locked-down areas.

But Ms Peace said many parents were keeping their children home because of health concerns anyway, particularly in special schools.

"So we already have significant inequity, because those students who are at home are not receiving a formal learning program — our kids with disabilities, in special schools, are receiving no learning program," she said.

Departmental guidelines were getting in the way of principals doing "the right thing", the general secretary of IEU Vic-Tas Debra James said.

"Too many people are required to be on campus when they could easily be working from home, and principals who are trying to minimise the number of staff or students in the senior secondary area are getting pushback," she said.

Ms Peace said some secondary schools had tried to implement flexible arrangements for their VCE students, such as keeping year 11s at home for part of the week.

But she said the Department of Education and Training told those schools to reverse those decisions, and other proposals put forward by the union had been rejected.

"We cannot have a circumstance where principals are trying to manage the growing anxiety and stress among their staff and students and parents, and yet they are not trusted to make very sensible decisions about how to manage their staff on site."

'This is serious': Unions say contact-tracing delays causing stress for schools

Ms James pointed to a senior secondary school in Melbourne's western suburbs which had recorded positive cases among students and staff and where a partner of a staff member was in ICU.

"This is serious stuff … we believe there is a different way, a better way, and this should be seriously looked at," she said.

The union leaders also said delays in contact tracing were causing a high level of "stress and anxiety" for schools.

"We've heard stories about people sweating over email all weekend, wondering if they should be preparing remote learning classes for their kids or whether they should be preparing to be on site, face to face," Ms Peace said.

"We can't sustain those kinds of workloads, we can't sustain that stress for our school communities."

Education Minister James Merlino said the settings in place at schools in Victoria were based on the Chief Health Officer's advice.

"Schools already have the flexibility at the local level for staff to work remotely and to provide learning support for students on extended absences," he said.

"Having VCE and VCAL students and those with a disability onsite ensures that those most impacted by remote learning still have access to face-to-face learning."

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