Hotspot school closes gates as push for remote learning grows

A Catholic primary school in one of Melbourne's coronavirus hotspots will close its gates next week, suspending on-site student supervision amid a wider call for a return to remote learning.

Emmaus Catholic Parish Primary School in Sydenham has no positive COVID-19 cases but made the decision to stop face-to-face lessons for the week after nine nearby schools confirmed coronavirus cases.

“You’ve got to do what’s best for your school community”: Penola Catholic College principal Chris Caldow.Credit:Jason South

The school is located in the Brimbank local government area, one of the areas hit hardest by COVID-19, with 658 active cases.

"This decision was not taken lightly," principal Jackie Byrne wrote to parents and guardians.

"Our school is situated in a high-risk area for infection by COVID-19. To reduce the risk to all staff and students at our school we will only be offering online learning and remote teaching.

"On-site learning supervision will not be available. This will only affect a number of students and we thank these families for their cooperation."

Ms Byrne said the plan was made in consultation with Catholic Education Melbourne and would be reviewed next week.

But Catholic Education Melbourne executive director Jim Miles said schools should follow state health advice.

"Schools should only close if they have received advice from the DHHS to do so," he said.

Independent Education Union branch secretary Deb James supported the move.

"This is a proactive decision by a school leader in an area of Melbourne where the potential for transmission is very high," she said.

Victorian state schools are currently open to children of essential workers, vulnerable students and those in year 11 and 12, while specialist schools are open to all students.

Penola Catholic College principal Chris Caldow wants to see an official return to remote learning.

The Broadmeadows school is currently extending home-learning by one week for year 11 and 12 students, despite being cleared to reopen on Monday after recording a positive case, in an effort to stop any community transmission.

"I'd love for the government just to come out and say all VCE students are going remote but if they don't I hope they'll give us the freedom to make decisions for our own local communities," Mr Caldow said.

"You've got to have that flexibility to do what's in the best interests of your school community."

Mr Caldow said teachers and students were finding remote learning easier this time and some VCE students were already staying at home.

"We've had a number of parents really anxious," he said.

"A number of year 11s and 12s didn't return anyway because parents made the decision it wasn't safe to return."

Education Minister James Merlino said if the state's Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton changed advice on schools his department would act immediately.

Professor Sutton's most recent advice remains that schools are low risk.

"I want to reassure you that schools remain safe places for students and staff when sensible steps are taken," he said in a statement issued by the Education Department on Friday.

"The available data suggests that transmission in school settings is rare."

A parent of a year 11 student in Melbourne's south-east who spoke anonymously said schools needed to return to remote learning to stop uncertainty for students.

"We are going through a very stressful time. This way children can settle down and set a routine for study."

Melbourne's north-west is experiencing a spike in cases including at Catholic Regional College Sydenham, which shut this week after seven teachers and multiple students tested positive. Statewide, 96 schools remained closed on Friday after recording cases.

The Australian Education Union and the Independent Education Union this week united to demand that the Education Department allow schools to make their own decisions about remote learning.

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