Sick school reality: Half the kids are missing, principal is teaching prep

It’s 8.30am at Lyndhurst Primary School, and there’s a scramble to fill staff vacancies.

Today, 12 staff are away. The most has been 18.

“It’s not just COVID, there’s the flu and colds, because of lockdown their resistance is down to diseases and there is just exhaustion to be honest,” Lyndhurst principal Greg Lacey said.

Lyndhurst Primary School is juggling covid/flu and staffing shortages. From left: Ryan Hunter, Aishy Badesha, Greg Lacey, principal, Patrick Robertson- and Avani Puliyullathil. Credit:Joe Armao

Remote learning has officially ended in Victoria schools but for many, the crisis is far from over.

As of Friday, there were 67,790 active COVID-19 cases in Victoria.

As teachers and students stay home in droves due to sickness, schools are struggling to cope. Many are combining classes or year levels. Some high schools have cancelled afternoon classes for senior years; others are implementing self-directed study days or one-off remote learning days. Eleven campuses have had to send students home due to staff shortages.

At Lyndurst Primary, which caters to about 950 children in 41 classes, one teacher had more than half her class – 12 kids – away every day for a week.

Education Minister James Merlino recently said staffing had become a key pandemic issue.

“The key thing for me … [and] parents and carers is that schools are open and students are learning face to face with their peers,” Merlino said.

At Lyndhurst, to cover the teaching roster, they combine classrooms, have a third-year teaching student taking classes and re-deploy staff from specialist tutoring, digitech or intervention programs.

On Wednesday, the principal took a prep class.

“That was quite a shock to the system. I haven’t done it for a while. It was quite delightftul,” Lacey said.

The Education Department’s policy is for schools to stay open. Students are given rapid antigen tests to take home weekly, there are air purifiers in most classrooms, but students are no longer required to wear masks.

School captain Aishy Badesha, 12, said it was “nerve wracking” when students came to school sick, unsure if they had COVID.

Aishy said it had been a slow transition for some students catching up on lost learning and adjusting to a routine again.

Lyndhurst Primary School captain Aishy Badesha, 12, said it was good to be back at school.Credit:Joe Armao

“It was kind of tricky. It slowed down the learning for people. I felt I had to catch up on my maths. I wasn’t learning by myself as well as with my teacher. It was hard. Learning new things was hard.”

Year 3 teacher Alicia Stevens, 32, said the absences and taking split classes made it difficult to know all the special needs of children. Some students ended up behind while others became bored if they’d already learned the lesson plan.

Stevens said teachers were tired and overwhelmed, and many were working overtime.

“Many are burning ourselves out,” she said.

Lacey said this was contributing to teachers feeling “stuck”.

“They are trying to move kids forward, but know they are behind. They have lost routines and [students] are not all completely back on board,” he said.

“The feeling they are childminding and not making progress, that’s what’s getting them down the most.“

It’s a similar story across Victoria. Miner’s Rest Primary School principal Dale Power, who is juggling nearly 30 to 40 per cent of staff absences in his Ballarat school, said it was a huge challenge: “You never know what will arise on a day-to-day basis.”

Lyndhurst Primary School’s Setayesh Zafar said she was worried about going back into lockdown. Credit:Joe Armao

He said staff were being flexible, “turning up almost daily not fully sure of what they’ll be doing … but you can only sustain that to a certain point”.

The crisis is reflected in demand for jobs.

Lacey said he had a job position closing on Friday with only one applicant. A few years ago, the same job would have attracted 150 applications.

”I think a lot of people are choosing not to do the job,” he said. “ They think, ‘I’m going to wait until all this is over before I have go’.”

But Lacey said his teachers had been extraordinary, doing everything to maintain routine as best they could.

Year 5 student Setayesh Zafar, 10, has 16 students in her class of 27. She says she’s been trying to avoid catching the flu and COVID.

“Things haven’t been normal,” she said. “I’ve been waiting patiently for things to get back to normal, now the flu is on top of COVID. It makes it hard.”

Seyatesh said most students found it hard to find a new post-lockdown routine.

”The change is really difficult. Some people are coping with it, others not really.”

Seyatesh said students were checking in on each other through the Messenger Kids app, having “brain breaks” from class and engaging in wellbeing programs.

Even so, she and her friends had dealt with some anxiety and depression. Seeing them at school was important.

“When I was stressed or depressed my friends were there for me. And I was there for them,” she said.

Avani Puliyullathil is a student at Lyndhurst Primary School.Credit:Joe Armao

Assistant principal Jamie Sharp said with so many challenges it was tough to get through the curriculum.

“We endeavour and try our utmost to make that occur, but it just feels virtually impossible,” he said.

“There’s always light at the end of the tunnel. But I can’t see it at the moment. We are probably heading in rather than heading out. Each day is different.”

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