Australia

School on edge of lockdown zone urges students to wear masks

The principal of a large regional high school close to one of Melbourne’s COVID-19 hotspots has overstepped official advice by urging staff and students to wear face masks in term three, as anxiety about the coronavirus led some parents to keep their children home this week.

Kellie Falck kept her daughter Sofia out of Gisborne Secondary College on Monday.

Kellie Falck kept her daughter Sofia out of Gisborne Secondary College on Monday. Credit:Luis Enrique Ascui

Gisborne Secondary College principal Jon Morley wrote to the school community on Sunday night "encouraging all staff and students to wear masks", despite the state's Chief Health Officer saying masks were not recommended in schools.

Hours after the school note was sent, the Education Department published guidelines confirming the Chief Health Officer’s position.

The guidelines state that unlike public transport and supermarkets, schools are "controlled settings where entry is restricted to only students, staff and those delivering essential school services", making control measures more enforceable.

Victorian opposition education spokeswoman Cindy McLeish criticised the official advice on masks, arguing they ought to be given to any teacher or student who wants one.

"There are people who are going to want to wear them and the government’s got warehouses full of them, and they’ve had all of this time to get more if they thought they didn’t have enough," she said.

Gisborne Secondary College has more than 1200 students and is close to Melbourne’s metropolitan boundary, with a large number of students who travel from the neighbouring Hume council area.

Hume had 222 active coronavirus cases on Monday, the highest number of any local government area in Victoria, while Macedon Ranges Shire, which includes Gisborne, had just one.

Gisborne Secondary College will temperature-test every student who travels from Melbourne's suburbs, either when they get off a school bus or in the main office.

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The Education Department has advised all schools outside lockdown zones to conduct daily temperature checks of students travelling in from Melbourne or Mitchell Shire.

Mr Morley urged his school community to rally around students from locked-down suburbs and to avoid singling them out.

"It is critical that we work together at this time and this means that we support families and students who are travelling to school from lockdown and ensure that they are not stigmatised or treated unkindly," he said in the note to parents and carers.

"When a community faces a challenge like this health crisis, we wish to see the best, not the worst in each other. I will make this message very clear to all students tomorrow."

Kellie Falck – whose daughter Sofia is in year 9 at the school – kept her child home on Monday, the first day of term three for all students outside Victoria's lockdown zones.

Ms Falck has two other children in primary school in Gisborne and sent them to class on Monday, but said Gisborne Secondary College’s larger size and its contingent of students from Melbourne swayed her decision to keep Sofia home.

"I would’ve been happy for the school to say, because we are on the border, let’s take this week off as well for caution’s sake,' Ms Falck said.

Students in years prep to 10 in lockdown zones have been given a third week of holidays this week before a return to remote learning.

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Gisborne Secondary College’s call to wear masks also led Ms Falck to keep Sofia home, for fear it would heighten anxiety for her daughter.

"For us as a family, we have been very much in lockdown mode – Sofia hasn’t worn a mask," she said.

Large non-government school Wesley College also deviated from Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton's advice on Monday, strongly encouraging all students "to wear masks to, from and in school".

"This is not yet mandated, but it is a request," principal Nick Evans said.

Professor Sutton said this week that masks would make the job of teaching more difficult, limiting students’ ability to hear and to gauge facial expressions.

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