Covid outbreaks among students unlikely to shut NSW schools but staff shortages could

<span>Photograph: Darren England/AAP</span>
Photograph: Darren England/AAP

State’s teachers union says significant disruption to staffing may cause closures as parent group says it will launch legal action over rules preventing pandemic leave

Large-scale Covid-19 outbreaks among students are unlikely to lead to school closures when classes resume in New South Wales, with the state government determined to shut down schools only in the case of key staff shortages.

However a group of concerned parents and teachers says it will take legal action against the NSW Department of Education, claiming it has prevented schools from granting families leave to keep their children at home if they are worried about Covid infection.

The group, called Covid Safe Schools, said a senior executive of the department confirmed the pandemic was not a valid reason for keeping kids home. The group said refusing to grant such leave was a breach of schools’ duty of care.

Peter Vogel, the lawyer representing the group, told Guardian Australia negotiations with schools and the department had been ongoing since the beginning of term four last year, but the department had refused to change its policy.

A spokesperson for the group, Elizabeth Rosewall, said in a statement that granting pandemic leave would be a “win-win”.

“Parents can do without the extra fear of breaking the law. It would also reduce the number of children in the classroom which reduces the risk for kids who have no choice but to be there and makes it a bit safer for teachers too,” she said.

The NSW and Victorian governments have released near identical plans for schools ahead of the resumption of classes next week.

Both states intend to use rapid antigen tests for twice-weekly “surveillance” testing during the first four weeks of term one, the NSW premier, Dominic Perrottet, saying on Monday that 5m tests had already been distributed to schools across the state.

But with just a week to go before classes resume, some school staff were “anxious” as supplies of rapid tests had yet to arrive, Craig Petersen, the head of the NSW Secondary Principals’ Council, said. While the NSW education department says in most cases tests will be delivered in the next two days, it will be left to the individual schools to distribute those to parents.

“It’s going to be really important for parents to keep an eye out for communications from their school principal because we get the high-level statewide information but it’s going to be very different from school to school,” Petersen said.

Perrottet has repeatedly said closures would only occur as a “last resort” in 2022, as the government looked to end the Covid-enforced disruptions which saw 289 public schools made “temporarily non-operational” in a little over a month between October and November last year.

Related: As Australian students prepare to leave Covid lockdowns in the past, teachers are frustrated by the lack of planning

A key plank of that plan for both states is an end to contact tracing if a student tests positive for the virus.

Instead it will then be up to individual schools to contact other parents to let them know there has been a positive case in the school community and that they should monitor their child for symptoms.

That, according to the NSW Teachers Federation president, Angelo Gavrielatos, has both teachers and parents concerned about the possibility of large-scale outbreaks inside schools, particularly with schools only provided with enough tests for the first few weeks of term.

“What we’ve certainly said, because we’ve argued for the most robust settings in the implementation of these risk mitigation strategies, is that we think there should be a system surveillance, plus also the option of what’s called test and stay in cases where outbreaks occur,” he said.

But while both governments want to limit school closures, multiple sources told Guardian Australia it was likely shutdowns would occur in cases where disruptions to staffing made it impossible for classes to continue. Education department officials have told administrators it was possible as many as 20% of staff could be off sick once classes resume, and last week the Guardian revealed more than 70 public schools across NSW already had staff vacancy rates of 20% or higher.

Related: Australian children facing ‘generation-defining disruption’ due to pandemic, experts say

“Clearly none of us want schools to be closing and infection rates to be affecting our schools but the reality is this will be a very disruptive school year,” Gavrielatos said.

“Regrettably there will be absences because of infection rates which will lead to some schools being non-operational. It could be as a result of there being no cleaning staff available, or because of inadequate staffing available to properly supervise students.”

Petersen said education officials had suggested closures would only occur as the result of “so many staff being away that we can’t provide minimal supervision for the students who are at school”.

“The line we’re hearing is that as long as staff are available we’ll keep schools open,” he said.

“That may be more likely to affect the primary school sector where teachers are in a particular class, as opposed to high school where you have teachers in multiple year groups.”

On Monday the secretary of the NSW education department, Georgina Harrisson, said that in cases where schools were forced to close, the government would seek to limit the length of the disruptions.

“If we need to move to learning from home, we will do it for the fewer students as possible for a shorter time as possible and we ask parents to follow the advice of your school if that occurs in those communities,” she said.

Amid reports some parents plan to keep their students home from school once classes resume, Perrottet on Monday sought to reassure parents the plan was “the right approach for the circumstances that we are in today”.

“As a parent as well I know that many parents across the state are anxious about sending their children back to school, many teachers are anxious; I was speaking to a teacher on the weekend … anxious about the return of school,” he said.

“That is understandable in a pandemic, but it is really, really important for our kids’ educational, mental health and social outcomes that they are back in the classroom. I accept it will not be perfect, there will be issues moving through this, but this is the right approach.”

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