Victorian parents are being assured it is safe for students to return to school as part of the state government’s easing of coronavirus restrictions.
Premier Daniel Andrews has confirmed students in Prep, grades 1 and 2, years 11 and 12, and at special schools will be allowed back in the classroom on May 26.
From June 9, students in years 3 to 10 will join their schoolmates on campus at government schools.
The development comes after a state government testing blitz, with 161,000 samples, showed levels of COVID-19 in the state are “very low”.
“We think we can manage and control that and it’s appropriate now that students go back to school,” Mr Andrews told reporters on Tuesday.
Since the start of Term 2, Victorian schools have only been open to students unable to learn from home – including children of essential workers – as part of the effort to stem the coronavirus spread.
Only about three per cent of students have been at school and the premier stressed that measure was put in place largely to help curb the movement of people in the Victorian community.
Victoria has been increasingly at odds with the federal government and other states over the easing of lockdown rules, particularly the sensitive issue of a return to widespread classroom teaching.
It is the last state to relax the restrictions on school students.
Mr Andrews insisted schools are safe, echoing the advice given by the nation’s chief medical officer for more than a month, and said it wasn’t feasible for some parents to keep their children at home, while others were in the classroom.
“The notion of running two separate systems … that becomes incredibly difficult,” he said.
Students with compromised immunities, however, won’t have to return.
As students go back to the classroom, drop-off and pick-up times will be staggered to prevent parents and carers from mingling.
Recess and lunch breaks will be staggered as well, teachers and staff will be socially distanced and there will be no school assemblies or excursions.
Children must drink from their own water bottles, not from fountains.
If there is a COVID-19 case at a school, it will be closed for a few days while contact tracing occurs.
Up to $45 million will also be spent to ramp up cleaning at schools every day throughout terms 2 and 3.
The Victorian branch of the Australian Education Union said the plan will give school staff, parents and students certainty and marks the beginning of the end to a challenging period.
Opposition Leader Michael O’Brien also embraced the plan, but said “four weeks is a long time to wait” for some students to return to the classroom.
While coronavirus restrictions are slowly lifting in Victoria, cases are still rising.
There were 17 cases confirmed from Monday, including eight connected to the Cedar Meats cluster.
Six workers and two close contacts were confirmed to have the potentially-deadly virus, taking the abattoir cluster total to 85.
The state’s Public Affairs and Estimates committee has also begun investigating the Victorian government response to COVID-19.
Chief Health officer Brett Sutton has told the committee he is “agnostic” as to whether a Cedar Meats worker who tested positive on April 2 had any link to the cluster, which emerged with a case on April 24.
The worker who tested positive on April 2 had told heath authorities they hadn’t been at work at any time when they could have been infectious.
There have been 1509 coronavirus cases in Victoria, but only around 120 are active.
Eighteen people have died in Victoria from the virus.