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Relief teachers on standby as COVID sidelines hundreds of school staff


UPDATED: Principals have been assured by the Education Department there will be enough relief staff on standby when students return in full to classrooms next week, as official figures show more than 400 staff were absent on one day this week for COVID reasons.

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Retired school leaders have also been recruited to help principals with the logistics of managing outbreaks on top of day-to-day operations.

SA Primary Principals Association president Angela Falkenberg told InDaily that having enough staff was at the forefront of principals’ minds, as more teachers test positive or become close contacts.

“One of the things that leaders are nervous about is being able to backfill if there’s a workforce shortage,” Falkenberg said.

“The department has repeatedly stated they’ve got access to a whole range of people.”

Figures released by the Education Department show that on Monday 404 staff were absent from public schools for COVID reasons – including 214 teachers and 190 school support officers.

The absences include staff away because they are infected, isolating or caring for someone.

Data was not available for yesterday by InDaily‘s publication deadline.

But figures for the three days schools were operating last week showed fewer than 400 staff were away each day for COVID reasons – 323 on Wednesday, the first day back; 373 on Thursday and 375 on Friday.

The Australian Education Union says what’s not clear though is whether any schools have experienced “clusters” and that information is unlikely to be made public going forward.

State president Andrew Gohl said the department had told him it would not be releasing details of “hotspot” schools.

“Where is this happening as a cluster?” Gohl said.

“I’ve asked (department chief executive) Rick Persse, ‘Are you providing data of where this is occurring?’ and he said, ‘We’re not going to make that public’.

“I think that’s a concern because there needs to be some consistency about the way that the department is dealing with subsequent staffing shortages that might occur from site to site.

“Even one staff member off in a small school is going to have implications for delivering programs.”

Gohl said at the least the union should be made aware of school hotspots to be able to help support staff.

He also argued there was public interest in the information being released more broadly.

“If the objective is to slow the Omicron virus, then the public being aware of where those hotspots are is an important part of that because then people can modify their behaviour or be on extra alert for their particular child,” he said.

Persse hit back at the union, saying “the idea that live reporting cases to the AEU would provide even a marginal benefit to families or the wider community stretches credibility”.

“Families and staff directly impacted by a case in a school are told as soon as possible and receive frequent updates, as per our agreed approach,” he told InDaily in a statement.

“They can make decisions for their family based on the information specific to their site as laid out in a letter informed by the expert health advice.”

Persse said there would “undoubtedly” be some challenges around staffing caused by an “unprecedented global pandemic”.

“We have set the system up to be nimble and responsive, with a pool of staff available to respond quickly to local staffing issues,” he said.

“This approach, which has been adopted specifically to respond to the pandemic, is being supported by the more than 4000 TRTs (temporary relief teachers) available across our system who can be placed in the normal way.”

Under the State Government’s staggered return to school to minimise COVID numbers, students in reception and years 1, 7, 8 and 12 have been allowed in classrooms for face-to-face learning since last Wednesday, the first day of term one.

Students in other year levels have been learning online from home.

All year levels are allowed back in classrooms next week.

The department did not provide actual numbers of student absences for COVID reasons but said the rate was 0.7 per cent of all students on Monday, a similar rate for last week.

Principals expect the rate of absences of both staff and students to increase next week.

“Next week when they are all back, just in essence with more students, there’s more work and I guess people are curious but probably prepared to manage potential more cases – more students, more possibility that there will be close contacts,” Falkenberg said.

“Also I know there are people who are home as a contact who are still providing a learning program because they can do it from home.

“I would be wondering next week, when everyone’s back onsite, if I’m now isolating I can’t deliver the learning program at home because my class is there. So I imagine next week the data will be interesting going forward.”

But Falkenberg said principals were “prepared” and “the department is saying to them we’ve got staff on standby ready to go”.

Attendance data released by the department showed that on Monday this week, 85 per cent of those allowed were back at school.

In addition to that, schools were managing more than a quarter of students from other year levels doing online learning at school, instead of home, many of whom would be vulnerable children or those of essential workers.

“That means that schools are supervising those students on the school site to do online learning with their teacher,” Falkenberg said.

She said the numbers would vary widely from site to site, depending on needs of local families.

“I would imagine with some schools, it’s higher, some schools could be 50 per cent, other schools could be 10 per cent,” she said.

“There were even principals who were ringing some families who they knew were struggling and said: ‘bring your child to school’.”

Falkenberg said retired principals had also been recruited to “come back and provide COVID support”.

“My understanding is that geographic areas have been allocated a support person so that if you have a question about a leave form, or accessing (something) then that person is the go-to,” she said.

“That provides a consistent supportive communication stream for leaders.”

As well as dealing with the logistics of managing COVID in school settings, “there’s still building projects going ahead, there’s still planning”, Falkenberg said.

“You haven’t got time to process a fact sheet or a piece online (about COVID) so you’ve got this person you can go to who’s really embedded just in that space.

“They’ve got the deeper understanding of whether it’s ‘what’s a classroom contact?’, whether it’s access to RATs (rapid antigen tests), whether it’s someone querying leave.”

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