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Almost one in three secondary school teaching jobs in Melbourne’s north and west are going unfilled and teachers warn the situation will grow worse amid expected staffing shortages forced by the Omicron wave.
Less than two weeks before the start of term 1, national cabinet is due to reveal details on Thursday on how schools should manage staff absences caused by COVID-19 and access rapid antigen tests.
National cabinet will finalise return to school plans including on testing and mask wearing for students on Thursday.Credit:iStock
But a new report shows staffing shortages are already a concern.
The Department of Education and Training report reveals specialist subjects including languages and technology are chronically short of qualified teachers, with roughly three in 10 advertised roles resulting in no appointment, while 20 per cent of advertised maths and science roles go unfilled.
In Melbourne, schools in the cities of Brimbank, Melton, Hume and Moreland have the greatest difficulty finding enough suitable teachers. Regionally, the Mallee, Goulburn and Outer Gippsland regions suffer the greatest recruitment challenges.
Andrew Dalgleish, president of the Victorian Principals Association, said staff shortages were “definitely a concern should infection rates among staff rise once back at school”.
“Unless there are consistent supplies of rapid tests to test and monitor infections for students and staff, I’m not sure how successful a return to full-time face-to-face teaching and learning will be.”
During staff shortages, schools typically use teacher agencies, graduates and retirees or cancel programs.
But the pool of registered teachers without an employer – such as casual relief or non-practising teachers – has fallen in recent years to close to 39,500. It’s also older, with more than a third aged 55 and over.
Veteran teacher Andy Bryce said relief teaching would be a hard sell for newly retired teachers, who would be “very concerned about catching COVID and taking it home to their families”.
Premier Dan Andrews says families can help keep schools safe by getting children vaccinated.Credit:Joe Armao
“With increased staff absence I think many programs such as inter-school sport, excursions and camps will need to be suspended due to unavailability of staff to cover the teachers running these programs,” he said.
Malcolm Elliott, president of the Australian Primary Principals Association, said he was “seriously concerned” about the likelihood of staff shortages and school communities needed certainty on rapid testing, isolation, ventilation, masks and staffing.
Premier Daniel Andrews said on Wednesday students would be back at school on day one of term 1 and the government would “do everything we can possibly can to make those schools as safe as possible”.
“I know that teachers and staff are anxious, and I daresay students are also pretty keen to know what’s going on. We will resume schooling day one, term 1. It’ll look a bit different,” he said.
Isolation rules for school staff who are close contacts of COVID cases have already been relaxed, allowing them to keep working if they have no symptoms, rather than isolate for seven days.
The government is likely to embrace a surveillance testing regime, where students complete rapid antigen tests at home before attending school. It’s also promised to deliver air purifiers to every state and low-fee non-government school by the start of the term and said it would not postpone its catch-up tutoring program if there was a teacher shortage.
Independent girls’ school Toorak College said the national plan should enable schools to move to remote learning when necessary, and it would ignore recently relaxed isolation rules for staff due to concerns it would lead to more cases.
“Putting 80 kids in a room if we’ve got staff shortages is not going to help anyone, and nor is getting staff back before the end of their isolation period,” principal Kristy Kendall said.
Catholic boys’ school Xavier College is preparing for all possibilities, with principal William Doherty telling families that while he hoped and expected the school would stay open, it would “need to be responsive to government directions, health order and school operational requirements”.
Shadow education minister David Hodgett said schools must be given free rapid antigen tests, students whose family members test positive should be free to attend school if they test negative and masks should be scrapped for students.
The latest report on Victoria’s teaching workforce shows while teaching supply is forecast to meet demand in coming years, government schools “continue to experience recruitment challenges for some teaching roles, exacerbated by location and subject area”.
“Recruitment to STEM [science, technology, engineering and mathematics] subjects and special education continues to be difficult,” the report states.
In secondary schools across Victoria, 19 per cent of roles advertised result in no appointment, the report states, and design technology and digital technology have the highest no appointment rates. Across primary schools, languages and digital technology subjects struggle most for teachers.
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