Health department stays mum on school transmission numbers

The Victorian Department of Health has refused to say how many people have been infected with COVID-19 at schools, despite mounting calls for classroom lessons to be scrapped as school closure numbers surge.

At least 156 schools have been forced to close across the state due to COVID-19 infections, the vast majority in the past few weeks.

One school, Al-Taqwa in Truganina, is linked to 184 cases. A school in Melbourne’s north-west, Catholic Regional College Sydenham, shut last week after seven teachers and multiple students tested positive to COVID-19.

Al-Taqwa college in Truganina.Credit:Joe Armao

It's unclear, however, how many students and staff in total have been infected at school. The health department has repeatedly declined to answer how many COVID-19 infections are linked to Victorian schools.

Instead, a spokeswoman said transmission in school settings was rare and schools were "safe places for staff and students when the steps outlined in the health advice are followed".

She said a "vast majority of cases of coronavirus in schools involve the student or staff member acquiring the virus in the community, and these cases have been well contained through reactive and temporary closures".

Specialist schools and years 11 and 12 returned to classroom learning on July 13, while students aged prep to year 10 are doing remote learning to reduce the movement of 700,000 students and their families.

Premier Dan Andrews has consistently said the policy is based on medical advice.

"If the public health advice changed then of course our policy on schools would change, but it has not," he said last week.

"We've got to get our year 12 kids through, and that's what these policy settings are all about."

But unions representing Victoria's public and independent school teachers have asked the state government to grant schools the power to make their own decisions on remote learning to reduce the risk of infection.

And Parents Victoria, representing families who attend state schools, has called for students and staff to be able to work from home.

A spokeswoman for the health department said the "available data suggests that transmission in school settings is rare, and the risk to staff and students in both mainstream and specialist settings remains low, with health and safety measures in place.

"The evidence also continues to show that children are less impacted by the virus – they tend to have milder symptoms and are less likely to develop severe illness."

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