Victorian health authorities believe the virus was brought into the school by a teacher who had an extended family gathering attended by a COVID-19-positive person. The teacher was at school for two days while infected.
But that is all the school community and the wider public have been told. Communication about the outbreak from the college’s administration and Victorian health authorities has been slow and, in some cases, ambiguous.
“The school doesn’t tell the parents information and that’s not right. The public need to know how it has happened. I pay a lot of money to Al-Taqwa and it is not good enough,” one parent told The Age.
Some teachers say they have been instructed not to talk to anyone about the virus outbreak. And it took more than a week for Al-Taqwa principal Omar Hallak to comment. He eventually put out a statement defending the school’s hygiene and distancing procedures, adding the school had spent $100,000 during the holidays on cleaning.
He has not responded to further questions from The Age this week.
On Wednesday, the Department of Health and Human Services wrote to Al-Taqwa staff to assure them it was working “to contain” the spread of the virus. That the letter came just two days before the vast majority of the Islamic school’s 2300 staff and students came out of 14-day quarantine left some recipients puzzled.
Staff were also perplexed by the department’s position on return-to-school procedures. In the letter, it recommended staff and students bring with them to school proof they had recovered from the virus or had tested negative. Many believe this should be a mandatory requirement.
One possible explanation for the rapid transmission of COVID-19 throughout the school is the sheer number of students and staff who attend. Ensuring so many children and adolescents adhered to social distancing would be almost impossible.
“I personally saw there were [sic] no social distancing was practised when picking up kids. There are notice boards in place opposite the main office area saying parents are not allowed for the area where the palm tree is but each day the parents were freely allowed to walk, sit and wait and nobody was there to stop or question any parents,” Razeen Musthafa wrote on the college’s Facebook page.
“What is the point of having notice boards and sending messages in school box about all these great things you guys do when nothing was practised in real [sic]. When these basic things were ignored how can we feel confident about things inside?”
Another parent told The Age she knew some families at the school had been gathering on weekends in numbers far greater than the five allowed inside a home and 10 outdoors following new restrictions announced by Premier Daniel Andrews on June 20.
Several parents also complained about the state of the toilets at the school, claiming their children refused to use them because they were dirty and lacked soap. In response, the school administration acknowledged the toilets needed attention.
The Al-Taqwa outbreak took another twist on Thursday when Victoria’s Chief Health Officer, Brett Sutton, confirmed an “epidemiological link” to infections in public housing towers in Flemington and North Melbourne.
“The communities do cross over between Truganina and these towers,” Professor Sutton said on Thursday.
Some children from the tower precincts are bussed each day to Al-Taqwa. Despite revealing the link, Professor Sutton cautioned that there were likely many causes for the outbreaks in the towers.
On the school’s Facebook page, many parents are urging its leadership to keep the school closed until the virus spread is under control. Others, though, are philosophical.
“Let’s not forget what our religion teaches us. What Allah has planned for us no one can stop it.”
Richard Baker is a multi-award winning investigative reporter for The Age.