Your questions about COVID and Victorian schools, VCE exams and masks answered | #coronavirus | #kids. | #children | #schools


After another lockdown sent Victoria’s 1 million students in and out of remote learning, classrooms are beginning to open up again.

The timelines are different depending on where you live and your age, and there have been several changes to rules surrounding masks and quarantine.

Here’s the current state of play.

When are students actually back in the classroom?

Like a lot of things during the pandemic, the answer to this question isn’t as straightforward as you might think.

Students across the state sat the General Achievement Test (GAT) in person last Tuesday.

In regional Victoria, barring locked-down Mildura, are in the middle of a staggered return to the classroom, which began at the start of last week and will see all students back in the classroom by October 26.

In Melbourne, those studying VCE 3 and 4 subjects, as well as final-year VCAL and IB students, have been allowed back for just over a week.

In the week beginning Monday, October 18, on-site learning will return for prep students, followed by years 1 and 2 from Thursday and Friday.

Other year levels need to wait until the next step in the roadmap out of lockdown.

The opposition wants to see all students back in the classroom by October 25, which Shadow Minister for Education David Hodgett last week said would allow all school staff to have at least one dose of a vaccine before returning.

On Thursday, Education Minister James Merlino said the staggered return to the classroom was “a really conscious decision” based on public health advice.

“Because it’s been such a long period of lockdown, on top of the long periods of lockdown that we had last year, that what we wanted to do was to get as many students back to face-to-face teaching as quickly as possible, and the best way to do that was the staggered approach,” he said.

Primary schools with composite classrooms have applied to the department for approval to allow all students to attend on the same day.

Who has to wear a mask?

Masks are worn by school children across the world in a bid to stop the spread of the virus.(AP: Brynn Anderson)

All school children in year 3 and above are now required to wear masks indoors at school.

Masks indoors at school are strongly recommended, but not compulsory, for children in prep to year 2.

That’s a recent change from the previous mandate, which only applied in high schools.

Face masks are already mandated for all Victorians over the age of 12 outside their home, a rule that currently applies indoors and outdoors.

Students with relevant medical conditions are exempt from wearing a face covering.

Mr Merlino did not directly answer whether students would be sent home for not wearing a mask, saying that was a matter best answered by individual schools.

“Schools know how to manage these issues, so it’ll be treated just as any other part of a student’s uniform and our principals and teachers will approach it in a common-sense way.”

What happens if someone linked to the school gets COVID?

In the past, entire schools have been shut down for up to 14 days after an exposure on campus. 

That approach has now been refined and will involve the Department of Education and Training working with the Department of Health to clean the school, identify close contacts and allow others to return back to campus. 

It echoes the approach being taken in supermarkets and some other industries as the state moves away from a goal of COVID-zero and towards a vaccine-led response to the virus.

A male nurse gives a vaccine to a girl wearing a face mask.
A growing portion of Victoria’s VCE students have been vaccinated against COVID-19.(ABC News: Freya Michie)

Speaking on Thursday, COVID-19 response commander Jeroen Weimar said there had been 49 schools with a positive case exposure in the past 10 days. 

Most of those schools were back and reopened again, he said, after the initial contact tracing and deep cleaning was finished.

These rules are different, however, if the primary close contacts are going to sit a written VCE exam.

What are the rules for VCE exams?

Students sit an exam.
Students sitting their final exams will wear masks and be distanced from their peers.(ABC News)

Students will now be able to sit their final exams in person, even if they have been identified as a close contact of someone with COVID-19.

Written VCE exams begin on October 27. By that date, it is projected 75 per cent of 17- and 18-year-olds will have had two doses of a COVID-19 vaccine.

Mr Merlino said the surging vaccination numbers in young people, and the rest of the community, were behind the new rules.

Students who have had both doses of a COVID-19 vaccine will only have to quarantine for seven days, while partially vaccinated or unvaccinated students will need to complete a fortnight in isolation.

But all students who are primary close contacts will get an exemption to leave quarantine to sit their exams in a dedicated room with a separate entrance.

They will be either by themselves, or distanced from other students who are also primary close contacts.

They will be supervised by staff wearing face shields and “healthcare worker-level PPE”, Mr Merlino said.

The close contacts will be tested every 48 hours for their first week from exposure, and then on day 13.

Students who have contracted COVID-19 will not be required to sit the exams and will receive a derived examination score for any assessment they miss.

The educational disadvantage process can also be applied.

Schools will aim to reschedule performance or oral exams for students who cannot attend in person on the original date.

What is being done to keep classrooms safe?

The government has referred to the “three Vs” — ventilation, vaccination and vital COVID-safe steps.

Only about 2,000 HEPA air purifiers have been rolled out across schools to date, of the 51,000 slated for government and low-fee Catholic schools.

The slow rollout was expected, with Mr Merlino saying there was “massive, massive demand” for the purifiers, which was why the first machines were sent to hotspot areas.

An air quality audit is almost complete, with Mr Merlino saying about 20,000 rooms have been assessed for airflow.

Teachers, support staff, admin workers, cleaners, and anyone else who works on-site needs to get vaccinated by October 18, with the second dose mandated by November 29.

The government says the vast majority of state teachers have already had their first dose. One teacher has taken her opposition to the mandate to the courts.

The government is also working on a wider trial of rapid antigen tests in school settings.

The Howqua campus of Lauriston Girls' School, seen from the air.
Students at Lauriston Girls’ School will have to be vaccinated if they want to attend the year 9 program in the High Country.(Supplied: Lauriston Girls’ School)

Some independent schools have introduced further measures, such as Xavier College cancelling on-site classes for the fortnight before exams to minimise the risk of students having to miss out.

Lauriston Girls’ School has mandated vaccines for all students who wish to attend a year-long program at their campus in the Victorian High Country next year.

Parents and students should prepare for COVID-safe measures to be in place well into next year.

‘The virus isn’t going away, we’re mitigating the risk as a community and as a country by increasing vaccinations, but there remains … a significant portion of the community that is unvaccinated.”

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Recycling the waste COVID-19 has created(Emilia Terzon)

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