‘Clash of two crises’: fears for NSW schools as Covid pandemic and ongoing teacher shortages collide

·6 min read
<span>Photograph: Ben Birchall/PA</span>
Photograph: Ben Birchall/PA

Exclusive: School administrators have been warned Covid infections may force 20% of staff off work when classes resume

A “clash of two crises” is looming when students return to New South Wales schools, as the Omicron wave adds pressure to a system that already faced severe and prolonged staffing shortages before the pandemic.

As the state government prepares to release at Thursday’s national cabinet meeting its long-awaited plan for the return of students, school administrators have been warned up to 20% of staff could be forced off work because of Covid infections and isolation rules once classes resume early next month.

Despite the NSW premier Dominic Perrottet insisting schools will be able to return safely on “day one, term one”, the scale of potential teacher shortages has prompted concerns from unions and education groups about the ability of schools to function given existing staffing shortfalls.

Related: School starts in two weeks – here’s what we know about Covid safety plans for Australian students

Documents seen by Guardian Australia reveal that at the end of 2021 more than 70 public schools across NSW had staff vacancy rates of 20% or higher.

While many of those were smaller regional schools where a single teaching vacancy can disproportionately affect overall vacancy rates, the list also includes larger schools across metropolitan and western Sydney.

At Barramurra Public School in Macquarie Fields in Sydney’s south west, for example, there were seven staff vacancies as of November last year out of a funding entitlement of 16.17 full-time equivalent positions – a vacancy rate of 43.29%. At the new high-rise Inner Sydney High School in Newtown, the 6.6 full-time equivalent vacancies amounted to a staff shortfall of 23.40%.

There were also significant shortages at some larger regional schools. At Wilcannia Central School 8.4 of the 15.1 full-time equivalent positions were vacant at the end of 2021, meaning 55.63% of positions at the school were not filled. Walgett Community College, which was forced to close briefly in October due to a Covid outbreak, had nine vacancies – a 42.45% staffing shortfall.

The president of the NSW Teachers Federation, Angelo Gavrielatos, said existing shortages would likely lead to the “clash of two crises” once schools resumed during the outbreak.

“The crisis of absenteeism that will be the direct result of Covid but also the teacher shortage crisis that the government has known about for years but not acted on,” he said.

“​There will be disruption due to absenteeism, and that may indeed render schools of non operational.”

Gavrielatos said there was a “very strong likelihood” schools would close for weeks at a time due to staff shortages.

“Regrettably, there will be disruption … as a result of the absenteeism that’s being anticipated,” he said.

“We expect that there will be many instances where schools will be deemed non operational, either in whole or in part.”

The NSW government has devised its return to school plans alongside Victoria, and will present them to national cabinet this week. The plan is likely to include the use of rapid antigen testing as a surveillance measure, with students to be asked to do two per week.

The regime, which has been used in the UK school system, would require the use of about 24m tests during a 10-week term.

Related: Australian air quality standards needed to combat Covid, experts say

On Tuesday, Perrottet said that while no final decisions had been made, surveillance testing was “absolutely” under consideration.

Asked about the threat of Covid-enforced staffing shortages, Perrottet conceded there were “challenges” associated with the isolation requirements but said they remained “important in slowing the spread of the virus”.

“Last year we faced difficulties and challenges as well. We had schools closed last year [so] there will be challenges as we go through the reopening of schools,” he said.

“There’s no doubt about that. But we are determined to make it as smooth as possible. That will mean at times teachers who are positive will have to isolate. It will mean at times that kids who are positive will need to isolate. But that is a better issue to be dealing with than having our schools closed. We need kids back in the classrooms.”

Opposition leader Chris Minns said the government had known about the staffing issue before the pandemic hit.

“The lack of teachers in our public education system predates Covid by years,” he said.

“We’ve seen a general deterioration, the number of teachers. Our great fear is that that will be exacerbated when teachers are off work because they’ve got Covid or they’re a close contact.”

The Labor leader has called on the government to release modelling showing how many teachers are expected to contract the virus once classes resume.

Opposition education spokesperson Prue Car criticised the government for considering calling on retired teachers to plug staffing holes.

“We should be having a proper plan for how to deal with a surge workforce for teachers, not just a heartbeat plan to bring back retired teachers,” she said.

Related: Toddler with rare genetic condition among record 18 Covid deaths in NSW

Perrottet on Tuesday also confirmed the government was considering asking students in their final year of university to provide a “buffer” to staff shortages, a plan that has come in for criticism from teachers groups.

Michael Wright, the acting secretary of the NSW Independent Education Union, was worried university students studying teaching could burn out before they graduate if they were pulled into classrooms to make up shortfalls.

“We think it’s really unfair on those students to be thrown into a crisis situation and burn them out before they even start,” he said, adding that retired teachers also presented issues.

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“We don’t want to see teachers who have retired, coming back in and being infected and having serious consequences because of those Covid infections.”

In a statement, the education department did not respond directly to questions about whether it had conducted modelling on the number of teaching staff expected to be forced to isolate due to Covid, or whether any steps had been taken to address the possibility of schools with existing staff shortages being affected.

A spokesperson said the NSW education department had “published guidelines for the backfilling of staff, which include the use of the casual teaching workforce”.

“This is to ensure that schools can continue teaching and learning, while affording a duty of care to students.”

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