Victoria’s four-week back-to-school COVID plan includes free RATs, masks and replacement teachers. This is what it will look like

The Government of Victoria is committed to having all of its schools resume face-to-face learning for the first day of term one.

Concerned that the Omicron variant could have a serious impact on student enrollment and health at the start of the school term, the Andrews government unveiled a four-week approach to managing COVID.

The plan is almost identical to the one introduced in New South Wales, with Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews working closely with NSW Premier Dominic Perrottet on new COVID parameters.

Here’s what school will look like for Victorian students and staff this term.

Students and staff must use the self-test monitoring regime

The government has secured 14 million rapid tests to deliver to schools and childcare centers in the coming weeks.

More than 6.6 million tests will be delivered in the first week of school, with delivery trucks rolling out starting Sunday morning.

The RATs will form the backbone of a self-testing regimen designed to stop widespread outbreaks in schools.

“These surveillance tests are just picking up cases, not necessarily all cases, which would be next to impossible given the amount of transmission in the community,” Andrews said.

“But it’s about finding as many cases as possible and closing those chains of transmission.”

Free rapid antigen tests will be available at school for families and staff to carry out home testing as part of the four-week plan.(ABC News: Simon Tucci)

Pupils and staff in primary and secondary schools will be recommended to test themselves twice a week, while pupils and staff in special schools will be asked to test themselves five times a week.

The test will be voluntary, with responsibility for reporting the results to the Department of Health and schools resting with parents and guardians.

Education Minister James Merlino said he expected overwhelming compliance from Victorian families.

Schools will distribute RATs to parents and families, with the first deliveries being made today.

“As much as we can give them, whether it’s one week, two weeks or the full four weeks,” Mr Andrews said.

“Certainly at least two, maybe more than that actually, for each family.”

Amid continued RAT shortages, the government has ensured it has all the rapid antigen tests needed to implement its back-to-school plan.

The supply figures will be reviewed by the government at the end of the four-week plan.

Schools will consolidate classes and employ retired teachers to deal with staffing shortages

Schools will use a “tiered” approach to staff replacements in the event of COVID infection or close contact.

The first level will involve schools replacing in-house teachers with casual teaching staff.

Levels two and three include schools combining certain years for a short period.

“You could have fives and sixes together in the gym for a week, for example,” Merlino said.

Education staff have also been reclassified as critical workers, allowing household contacts to voluntarily continue to work if asymptomatic and return negative rapid antigen tests daily.

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Victoria Premier Daniel Andrews reveals back-to-school COVID plan.

When it is particularly difficult to find available staff, schools will be able to call on a pool of job offers made up of retired or inactive teachers and support staff as well as final-year university students.

These staff will be deployed to local schools on a fixed term basis and will hold a valid work with children check or valid registration with the Victorian Institute of Teaching prior to commencement of employment.

Mask and vaccine mandates will be enforced

In line with the reclassification of education personnel as critical workers, booster doses will become mandatory for all school personnel.

A third dose of vaccination will be required for all on-site personnel, including contractors, either by February 25 or within three months and two weeks of their second dose of vaccine.

Over 99.7% of staff had been vaccinated with two doses of a COVID-19 vaccine by the end of the fourth quarter of 2021.

“I’m confident the staff will respond enthusiastically to the third-dose vaccination mandate,” Merlino said.

Parents are encouraged to have their children vaccinated, with just under 30% of Victorian children aged 5-11 now vaccinated.

Like last year, masks will be made mandatory for all staff and students in grade 3 and above, as well as anyone visiting a school.

School student in face mask.
Free surgical and N95 masks will be available for students to use in classrooms.(PA: Dan Peled)

The government will supply 30 million surgical masks to Victorian schools, with 5.8 million masks to be delivered in the first week.

Cloth masks may be worn, but surgical masks will be recommended by the government.

The government has also invested in 51,000 air purifiers for use in high-risk school rooms such as indoor canteens, music rooms and staff rooms.

Shade sails will also be installed in 1,800 schools as the government encourages outdoor learning.

School camps, excursions and sports activities may take place at the discretion of each school.

Remote learning is ‘just a very last option’

The government has been clear on its firm stance that students return to face-to-face learning with no alternative.

Mr Merlino said remote learning is “an absolute last resort” and will only be used in extreme cases at individual schools for the “shortest period possible”.

No provision will be made for remote learning in the event that a parent does not wish to send their child back to school.

“If they are at home because of COVID, whether they are positive or they are in contact with the household, then there will be learning materials and activities that schools will provide for these children,” Mr. Merlino said.

“But for all the other children, school is back and the requirement is that the children are back in school.”

If a student tests positive for COVID, schools will treat the case the same as any other communicable disease.

Schools will notify other parents and tell them to be on the lookout for symptoms, but whole classrooms won’t be widely classified as close contacts.

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