‘We’re like sacrificial lambs’: Unvaccinated teachers fear classroom return

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VCE English teacher Michelle Parker will feel unsafe and undervalued when she returns to work in person on Friday morning.

Being under 40 with no underlying health issues, Ms Parker is not yet eligible for a COVID-19 vaccination, like many of her colleagues, but she is required to be back in her Melbourne classroom.

Teacher Michelle Parker is concerned about being made to return to the classroom.Credit:Justin McManus

“I’ll be in close contact with hundreds of people a day and virtually unable to socially distance in small, poorly ventilated classrooms with up to 26 students,” she said.

“We’re in this completely un-COVID-safe environment. It doesn’t make sense.”

Ms Parker said schools had been “blindsided” by the state government’s decision to extend lockdown but send all regional students and Melbourne VCE students back to face-to-face teaching. Schools were previously open only to vulnerable students and children of essential workers.

“There was a lot of shock. We were not expecting at all for year 11 and 12 to go back and a lot of people are feeling like we’re sacrificial lambs,” she said.

“The government’s saying ‘we’ve got all these people we want to continue doing their jobs in person but some we’ll prioritise to be vaccinated and some we won’t’.

“I tried to stay optimistic and not complain because I’ve been grateful to keep my job and do what I love but this feels like one kick in the guts too many.”

Ms Parker said she was lucky the principal and leaders at her school, Templestowe College in Melbourne’s north-east, were doing their best to support staff.

Education unions and organisations have this week increased calls for teachers to be recognised as front-line workers and fast-tracked for vaccinations.

“Unless education staff are able to have priority access to a vaccine, we continue to be at risk of more disruptions to the on-site education of our students, especially in schools and TAFEs,” the Australian Education Union said in a statement.

But on Thursday deputy Chief Health Officer Allen Cheng said that “at this stage we’re comfortable with the prioritisation that we have”.

“There is a process to consider special groups but in general there’s a balance between getting special groups vaccinated first and getting as many eligible people in [as possible],” he said.

Currently, aged care and disability workers have been given priority access but this does not include teachers of children with disabilities.

Cameron Peverett, Colac Specialist School principal and president of the Principals’ Association of Specialist Schools, said he could not understand that exclusion.

“We work with people with a disability for a minimum of six hours a day and there are obviously some of the most vulnerable cohorts of children who are in our schools,” he said.

“They have complex care needs. We do feeding and toileting. You can’t get out of their space otherwise you can’t care for them, let alone educate them.”

Mr Peverett said he had been asking the Education Department to have specialist school teachers included in the priority rollout for disability workers.

“We would hate to be that person who accidentally brings it into our schools,” he said.

Paediatrician and researcher at Murdoch Children’s Research Institute, Margie Danchin, is leading a study investigating COVID-19 transmission in schools and the mental health effects of closures in partnership with the state education and health departments. She said it was critical teachers be vaccinated.

“I would say we need to advocate very strongly for them to be protected if we want to stop shutting schools,” Dr Danchin said.

“We’ve got to think about what’s essential to society moving forward, and when you look at the harm school closures do, that makes them a high-risk group to protect.”

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