Mal Cater, principal of Mentone College, emailed the school community on Wednesday to say the school would resume classes only when the safety of students and staff could be managed.
The school has made more than 20 staff roles redundant in the past week in response to shrinking revenues. It is one of a number of schools in Victoria that has moved to stand down staff since classes were shut down.
Principals and administrators at Edmund Rice, a network of 54 schools including eight based in Victoria, have agreed to take a pay cut of up to 20 per cent for the duration of term two and redirect the money to struggling families at the school.
The federal government has given non-government schools a Friday deadline to commit to reopening classrooms by the end of May in exchange for a 25 per cent advance on next year’s funding. It means schools must choose between joining the federal push to reopen schools as soon as possible, or waiting for Victorian Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton to give the all-clear.
Federal Education Minister Dan Tehan said it was safe for students and teachers to return to school, based on the advice of the Commonwealth’s expert medical panel.
Jeremy Stowe-Lindner, principal of Bialik College in Hawthorn, said he had no intention of going against the advice of Victoria’s Chief Health Officer on when to resume face-to-face classes.
“When you’ve got a choice between following the medical advice, supporting the welfare of your community on one hand, or somebody dangling some cash in front of you, where are your morals if you go for the latter?” Mr Stowe-Lindner said.
Victoria has committed to completing term two remotely, although Professor Sutton said this could change if evidence supports an earlier return.
Mr Tehan said the plan to offer incentives to schools to reopen classrooms in the next four weeks was based on sound medical advice.
“Why we’re doing this is because Catholic and independent schools approached the federal government, and said that some schools were experiencing cash flow issues, and asked for us to consider bringing forward the July payment that we would normally make to them,” he said.
Rabbi James Kennard, principal of Mount Scopus Memorial College, an independent school with 1500 students in Melbourne’s east, said he was “extremely frustrated” by the situation.
“Our position remains that we will be guided by the CHO [Chief Health Officer] of Victoria,” he said.
Rabbi Kennard said schools were “being pulled in both directions” by state and federal governments.
“It’s absolutely not helpful. These contradictory pressures are not how the system should work,” he said.
Rabbi Kennard said he had written to Professor Brett Sutton asking for clarity on the situation before he responds to the federal government’s offer, but lamented how the deadline of Friday placed “tremendous pressure” on principals.
Dr Toni Meath, principal of Melbourne Girls Grammar, said the school was weighing up its response to the Commonwealth’s call to reopen.
Dr Meath said the school was “in the flow at the moment of remote learning and it’s working well for us”.
“Too many changes, being too reactive, that’s not good for anyone so we will make a careful decision with the student in mind,” she said.
Victorian Education Minister James Merlino said he felt sympathy for non-government schools.
“What the federal government is doing is using funding to force non-government schools to ignore the expert health advice of the Victorian Chief Health Officer,” Mr Merlino said. “Expert health advice, not money, should determine whether or not a school fully opens.”
Independent Schools Victoria chief executive Michelle Green said the Morrison government had placed staff, students and parents at independent schools “in an extraordinarily difficult and unfair position”.
Australian Education Union Victorian president Meredith Peace said schools should continue following the advice of the state government and health authorities.
“While we’re keen as anyone to return to normal life, including a return to school, we must plan that return carefully to ensure the safety of both staff and students,” she said.
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Adam Carey is Education Editor. He joined The Age in 2007 and has previously covered state politics, transport, general news, the arts and food.