Thousands of teachers in NSW are up against the clock as the government’s Covid vaccine mandate deadline closes in.
Thousands of teachers in NSW are risking being suspended as the government’s public health order requiring all teachers in the state be fully vaccinated looms.
At a budget estimates hearing in NSW Parliament on Tuesday, the Education Department’s chief people officer, Yvette Cachia, revealed 4900 teachers in the state were yet to provide proof of vaccination to the government.
According to the Department, 74,000 teachers have been registered as fully vaccinated.
One Nation MP Mark Latham took aim at the decision to suspend teachers, questioning why the government couldn’t use rapid antigen testing to ensure classrooms were Covid-free.
“After excluding unvaccinated teachers from the classroom, the NSW Department of Education is now calling for VOLUNTEERS to fill a shortage of teachers,” the former leader of the Opposition said in a Facebook post.
“This is a panic move that will damage and disrupt student learning in classrooms across NSW. This shortage could’ve been avoided by implementing Rapid Antigen Testing to deliver Covid-free schools.”
Department secretary Georgina Harrisson insisted the vaccination mandate was for the safety of the teachers, who will be exposed to dozens of children every day.
“Even if a staff member took a rapid antigen test and was not positive for Covid, they would be in a classroom where there could be a child that put them at risk,” she said.
“What we are trying to do is to ensure that before any decisions around employment are taken … that we have fair and due process for our staff.”
Education Minister Sarah Mitchell said rapid antigen testing “certainly plays a role”, but was adamant it couldn’t replace vaccination in terms of risk reduction.
According to Channel 7, the department is contracting 30 short-term workers to look into teachers who haven’t proven their vaccination status by next Monday.
“We want to be able to give certainty to our school principals on staffing,” Cachia said.
The NSW Department of Education sent out a memo last week asking anyone who was qualified to teach to “volunteer” to be sent back into schools from November 8.
“The department is preparing for the possibility of reduced staffing levels in some schools, including where staff are in the process of being fully vaccinated, establishing their medical exemption, quarantining, accessing approved leave due to Covid-19 or not intending to be vaccinated,” the message read.
“The department is seeking volunteers from non-school based teaching staff; principals, school leadership; and corporate staff who are fully vaccinated, accredited to teach and have a current WWCC (Working With Children Check) to help where they can.”
The Department confirmed it would cover the cost of travel and accommodation within reason if a stand-in teacher was required to relocate to a regional area.
Rapid antigen tests begin in NSW schools
Rapid antigen tests could soon be rolled out at high schools across NSW in a bid to reduce disruption.
A pilot program will begin in Albury this week, with staff and students required to test themselves twice a week with the rapid tests as part of “community surveillance”.
Those who receive a positive result will need to follow up with a regular PCR swab at a NSW testing centre, while those who are negative can continue their day-to-day activity.
Close contacts of Covid-positive cases at schools will also have their isolation period halved, provided they receive daily negative test results over seven days.
Unvaccinated students who are close contacts of a positive case will have their isolation time reduced if they submit to daily rapid antigen testing.
Education Minister Mitchell said if the trial was successful, it would mean disruption for students was reduced.
“This is about living with a virus and getting back to normal life, while ensuring the community is confident in their safety on school sites,” Ms Mitchell said.
“Our best line of defence against this pandemic remains vaccinations, and until all students are eligible for one we must continue using RAHT kits to keep schools safe.”
Ms Mitchell said while the use of RAHT kits would be optional, close contacts who do not undergo daily tests would need to self-isolate for the full 14 days.