As students, staff and families across Victoria prepare for the beginning of the school year, the Victorian Government has announced a full suite of COVIDSafe measures to protect communities and minimise disruption to learning.

The arrangements depend heavily on the use of rapid antigen tests twice-a-week and a promise that 6.6 million tests will be delivered in the first week of term.

And include that teachers and school staff must have had their third dose of an approved vaccine, as a condition of employment, by February 25 if they are already eligible.

Premier Daniel Andrews and Minister for Education James Merlino made the announcements at the weekend, saying they will be mirrored in NSW schools from the start of term 1.

“Face-to-face learning is the best option for our kids’ learning and wellbeing – that’s why we’ve done the work to get students safely back in the classroom from the start of Term 1, and make sure they stay there,” the Premier Daniel Andrews said.

Education Minister James Merlino said the rapid antigen testing was part of a suite of measures.

“With vital COVIDSafe steps in place like surveillance testing, improved ventilation and high rates of vaccination, we’ve done everything we can to make schools as safe as possible– and we can’t wait to welcome all students back for Term 1,” Minister Merlino said.

He said surveillance testing, ventilation, vaccinations and comprehensive workforce planning would ensure a successful 2022 school year.

The Government will immediately deliver more than 14 million rapid antigen tests to schools and early childhood education and care services.

The surveillance testing is strongly recommended for all primary and secondary school students and staff, and early childhood education and care staff, twice-weekly at home before school or childcare.

Mr Andrews said it was about identifying positive cases and reducing transmission at school.

Students and staff at specialist schools will be recommended to test five days each week due to the higher risk of severe illness for medically vulnerable children.

School and early childhood staff will be added to the list of workers in key sectors who must receive a third dose of a COVID-19 vaccine by February 25 if they are already eligible, or within 3 months and 2 weeks of receiving a second dose to continue working in education settings.

“The Chief Health Officer (CHO) has advised a third dose will help ensure continued protection for this workforce, most notably individuals with significant underlying health conditions. He also noted that a mandate may help to mitigate against the risk of outbreaks in these settings.”

The CHO has further advised that Victoria is experiencing unprecedented and elevated rates of community transmission, and education settings are likely to be linked to a significant number of cases once the academic year commences after the holiday period.

Better ventilation

The government also said mproving ventilation is a key measure to slow the spread of the virus around schools, particularly in high-risk areas like staff rooms, music rooms, indoor canteens and other high traffic areas.

“All 51,000 air purification devices that were ordered will be delivered to government and low-fee, non-government schools for the first day of Term 1,” Mr Merlino said.

More than 1800 schools have applied for a Shade Sail Grant, with grants progressively being rolled out and shade sail construction already underway at more than 300 of these schoolsto allow more classes to learn safely outdoors.

The government has invested $7.5 million in early childhood services to improve ventilation, alongside a further $7.4 million to support kindergarten services to implement the best COVIDSafe measures for their individual settings, keeping children and staff safe.

More than 29 per cent of children aged 5-11 have now had one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, and the government is working to ensure all children in this cohort have access to two doses by the end of Term 1 – with 30 pop-up vaccination clinics opening on school sites, alongside grants to pharmacies and GPs to deliver vaccines at schools.

Teachers can work asymptomatic

In light of potential significant but short-term staffing challenges in schools and early childhood services in Term 1, the Government has classified education staff as critical workers – allowing household contacts to voluntarily continue working if they are asymptomatic and return daily negative rapid antigen tests.

The Government has also launched a pool of inactive teachers, education supportstaff, retired principals and surge administrative support staff for schools to access to cover any COVID-19-related workforce shortages.

The way COVID-19 cases are managed and reported in education settings will change from Term 1 to reduce the burden on schools and early childhood services.

Schools and kindergartens will be required to inform staff, parents and carers when there is a positive case and will provide advice on any steps families are required to take. Mask wearing will continue, with students in Grade 3 and above required to wear masks – although they will not be required outdoors.

Teachers will be required to wear masks at all times when not actively teaching or communicating with students. Remote learning will be considered only as a localised, short-term last resort – but when students are required to isolate as a close contact or positive case, the Department of Education and Training will continue to provide a suite of online resources for students in Prep to Year 10, ensuring they have activities and work to complete.