Teachers in regional Australia worried rising Covid cases will exacerbate ‘massive’ staff shortages

The return to school in regional Australia amid rising Covid-19 cases could exacerbate existing teacher shortages and fatigue, and ventilation requirements may leave classrooms more exposed to the fierce summer heat.

Tim Danaher, the central west organiser for the New South Wales Teachers Federation, said many high schools in the state’s west were already starting the school year with two or three vacant teaching positions, while in towns such as Walgett the number is even higher.

He said the “massive” staff shortages will only become worse as staff are affected by rising case numbers.

The President of the Griffith Teachers Association, Jenna Woodland, has been preparing for students to return on Friday, after having contracted Covid-19 only the week prior.

“I’m still having to have a sleep every day. My energy levels are depleted,” Woodland said.

She has been worried whether the government has a plan for how to aid teachers coming back to work after after having Covid if they also feel their energy levels have been depleted.

If other teachers contract Covid-19, Woodland said the existing staffing issues will become more apparent. “How long before these classrooms are without a teacher?”

Woodland said ventilation in ageing regional schools is another concern as they prepare for the return.

She said the air conditioning in her classroom doesn’t work despite it being newly installed, while opening a window only lets the heat in.

“In February we always have two or three weeks of low- to mid-40s.

“Thirty hot and sweaty bodies in that room at the best of times it’s very uncomfortable, let alone we know this virus likes to hang around and we’re exposing kids to air that is contaminated with the virus.”

Danaher agreed ventilation was a concern for schools in the west, where it’s not viable to have the window open when it’s in excess of 40C heat, which leaves the “teachers and students suffering”.

As summer holidays draw to a close, Gilgandra children Samara, Amelia, Jack, Loralai and Chloe are looking forward to returning to school
As summer holidays draw to a close, Gilgandra children Samara Hawke, Chloes Eason, Amelia Eason, Jack Eason and Loralai Hawke are looking forward to returning to school. Photograph: Natasha May/The Guardian

A Department of Education spokesperson told Guardian Australia the department would continue to provide guidance and solutions relevant to a school’s local setting.

“In general, windows will be left open in all practicable circumstances with air cooling and heating systems being utilised in parallel to maintaining ventilation,” the spokesperson said.

Woodland is also concerned that time spent having to prepare for Covid-safe measures leaves teachers with less time to devote to education.

She said the two staff development days usually devoted to professional development and training have been “put on the back-burner”, replaced by outlining Covid-safe risk management.

“We thought the last couple years were bad, but I think it’s about to get a whole lot worse before it gets better,” Woodland said.

An anonymous teacher from Singleton said the quality of students’ education would suffer as teachers falling ill would leave their colleagues covering their classes.

“Taking someone else’s lesson cuts into your planning time, marking time, and lesson preparation.”

She said during a normal term a teacher might have to cover two or three lessons, but that the previous term she covered more than eight lessons and expects she will have to cover more this term as there are no casual teaching staff in Singleton.

“Our administrator tried last term to find retirees, there’s no availability. You can’t magic them they’re just not around.”

She said the situation had been exacerbated by fewer people wanting to travel out of their own area because there was enough casual work there.

She expressed concern that the final year university students and retired principals who have volunteered to be part of the backup workforce would only cover metropolitan areas.

“They’ll all be in the cities – not for Singleton, Bourke, Cowra,” the teacher said.

A Department of Education spokesperson said “this contingency workforce will be deployed where possible whether in the metropolitan or rural and regional areas of NSW.”

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In Gilgandra, Wendy Fong said her daughter Tiffany was looking forward to going back to school, and at the local pool, friends Lisa McLeod and Sandra Eason said their kids were “excited” to go back to the classroom.

Lauren, whose son will start year 11 in south west Victoria on 1 February, said the return to in person learning means a lot for her son who suffered academically and socially from remote learning.

Living on a dairy farm, Lauren’s son had no school friends within the five kilometre radius limit imposed and consequently struggled with the isolation socially and academically.

She said many others at her son’s school would have been in a similar position as the school has a large intake area with most students coming farm properties often over 100 kilometres away, rather than from town.

After the experience of remote learning saw her son loose his aspiration of studying engineering at university, Lauren hoped the return to face to face learning will see him regain motivation.


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