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Schools with vulnerable pupils at front line of virus risk: principal


The school has one of the largest cohorts of students still turning up for class in the state – between 40 and 70 a day – because of the high proportion of vulnerable children and those of essential workers, who are the only students allowed to attend school under current state advice. ‘‘We’re at the front line,’’ Ms Piazza said. ‘‘We do our very, very best, but you can’t physically distance from a five-year-old who needs help in all of this.’’

The principal’s assessment comes as a stoush between the federal and state governments over schools escalated on Sunday, as Federal Education Minister Dan Tehan called Premier Daniel Andrews’ refusal to reopen schools a ‘‘failure of leadership’’.

He later said his personal attack on the Premier had overstepped the mark and withdrew the comment. The federal government is urging schools across the country to resume face-to-face classes before the end of term two. Victoria is one of only two states not to have decided to resume classes.

Henry Grossek, principal at Berwick Lodge Primary in Melbourne’s south-east, which also has a high number of students still required to attend classes, said principals and teachers at similar schools were having to accept a higher level of risk while federal and state governments bickered.

‘‘That’s where we’re caught between a rock and a hard place on this issue. Clearly, we’re scared too; I don’t want to get coronavirus and neither do my staff,’’ he said.

‘‘But the bottom line is, we have to be open to those vulnerable children and for the parents who can’t stay home … The health risk is a risk that has be taken.’’

Berwick Lodge has 44 students still listed to attend school, spread across three classrooms. ‘‘It’s such a political football,’’ Mr Grossek said. ‘‘I have parents that come to me and say, ‘What do we do?’

‘‘The Prime Minister says schools are reopened; we have to keep repeating the message to them – you’re in Victoria.’’

Ms Piazza said her students would attend classes at a nearby school while Meadowglen was cleaned. She said telling children to stay at home was not an option. ‘‘We have all these people who are reliant on us so they can go to work and do what they need to do,’’ she said.

“A lot of our parents either work in aged care or childcare. They’re truck drivers or tradies or they work at supermarkets … we need to support these people.”

Australian Principals Federation president Julie Podbury said schools such as Meadowglen faced a number of challenges related to the large number of students still attending classes. ‘‘For most kids, a term away from school is not going to make much of a difference. It’s not the case for kids from more disadvantaged backgrounds and non-English speaking backgrounds,’’ Ms Podbury said.

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‘‘For them, every day lost multiplies as every day goes on. That’s why schools like Meadowglen have worked so hard.”

But in spite of the challenges staff in some schools are facing, Ms Podbury said most teachers and principals did not think the federal government should be attacking the state over its school closures.

“Even though people are exhausted, even though they might love for things to be back to normal, they are of the view that the right things are happening,” she said.

“The federal government is doing Victorians a huge disservice by sticking their nose in.”

Ms Mikakos on Sunday morning hit back at the federal Education Minister and called on Prime Minister Scott Morrison to clarify his government’s position.

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Hours later, Mr Tehan said his frustration of poorer outcomes for students if remote learning continued led him to “overstep the mark in questioning Premier Andrew’s leadership on this matter, and I withdraw”.

Mr Tehan’s attack on Mr Andrews came an hour before Ms Mikakos revealed the Meadowglen Primary School’s positive test.

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