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Schools have been told to treat face masks like part of the uniform and teachers will wear full protective gear to supervise some students sitting VCE exams as Victoria prepares for the staged return of students to face-to-face learning this month.
Education Minister James Merlino said enforcing indoor mask-wearing for all students in year 3 and above would be hard, but it would help keep children at school. Masks are recommended, not mandated, for children in prep to grade 2.
“We know this is hard across the board, particularly with little ones, but it is a requirement,” he said on Thursday.
Mr Merlino said the government had supplied operational guidelines to schools giving support to principals on how to implement the mandate.
“Schools know how to manage these issues. It will be treated like any other part of the uniform and our teachers will approach it in a commonsense way.”
Requirements have also changed for VCE students who are isolating after being identified as primary close contacts of COVID-19 cases. They will still be able to sit their exams “supervised by staff wearing face shields and healthcare-level PPE”.
Teacher Michelle Parker is pleased to be back in the classroom and is managing mandated mask-wearing and PPE requirements. Credit:Justin McManus
Close contact students will sit either by themselves or safely distanced from others in separate, well-ventilated rooms that will be cleaned thoroughly after being used.
Templestowe College VCE English teacher Michelle Parker said she was willing to do whatever it took to see her students through their exams.
“PPE sounds really intense, but I would rather do that than the kids not come in and take their exams,” she said.
Australian Principals Federation acting president Tina King said schools were supportive of the new PPE mandate, but still grappling with the practicalities.
Chelsie Spence from Canine Comprehension with therapy dog, Joosh.Credit:Justin McManus
“We want our VCE kids to sit the exams, so it’s commendable that these amendments have been made, but now it is about how they are unpacked and implemented at the local level, to have that dedicated room, and to ensure the correct PPE for the supervisors, the cleaning, the disinfection; it’s just another thing for schools to work through,” she said.
“It’s a very tough and complex time. The goalposts keep moving and we’re trying to stay ahead of it.
“This is about our kids and we want the absolute best for them.”
Any student unable to sit their exams will be given a derived score based on their school assessments and General Achievement Test results.
Fully vaccinated student found to be a close contact of someone with COVID-19 will now have to isolate for seven days, while partially vaccinated and unvaccinated students will isolate for 14 days.
More than 80 per cent of 17 and 18-year-olds have had one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, with 75 per cent on track to be fully vaccinated by the time the VCE written English exam is held on October 27.
COVID-19 response commander Jeroen Weimar said 49 schools had been exposed to coronavirus in the last 10 days. Most of those schools had reopened and authorities were working with positive cases to ensure they isolated.
The state government on Thursday also announced the new Schools Mental Health Menu to help schools choose programs to address the impact of the coronavirus pandemic and remote learning on children’s mental health.
The $200 million fund would start at government schools in regional Victoria from mid-2022, and the government wanted it rolled out across all state schools by 2024.
Choices include evidence-based programs and initiatives, including positive mental health promotion, early intervention initiatives and therapy dogs in schools.
Chelsie Spence from Canine Comprehension, who attended Thursday’s state government COVID-19 press conference with therapy dog Joosh, said the dogs had already helped many students return to the classroom environment and re-engage with learning.
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