First step towards return to school today

Liz Bell

TODAY marks an exciting new beginning for school communities across Wellington Shire, as they get back to the routine of classroom education after two months of uncertainty.

School staff, parents and students have been busily preparing for this day since Premier Daniel Andrews announced on May 12 that a staggered return to school would begin on May 26.

Most Victorian government school students, beginning with students in prep, grades 1 and 2, year 11 and year 12, started back at school this morning, with students in all other year levels set to return on June 9.

While all school communities have navigated the challenges of online learning as students worked from home, one school that has dealt with its own set of challenges this year is particularly thrilled to return to “normality”.

Cowwarr Primary School principal Albie Fitt said the school’s entire enrolment of 23 students was returning to classes today, operating from a temporary building after the old school burned down in January.

Mr Fitt said there had been a gradual build up of excitement and anticipation among staff and families, with everyone thrilled to be coming back together as a community and working together to educate and support the students.

He said learning had continued since the school fire in January, first at Heyfield Primary School and then in temporary buildings at the old Church St site, and families had coped well with the work provided by teachers since schools were shut from March 24.

“I am so proud of my school community, my staff, my students and their families, for dealing with the challenges we have faced and getting on with their learning,” he said.

“Our kids and parents are fantastic. We actually need to hand out teaching degrees to all the parents who have worked so hard; it’s them really, not us, who have done all the hard work.”

Mr Fitt said school staff had supported families, communicating with them regularly, providing curriculum-based work, and just catching up.

“For us, it has been a very positive experience that has brought the community even closer,” he said.

“And as a principal, it has been really nice to be involved with this community, facing the challenges together – this has been the greatest concept of ‘team’ I have ever experienced.”

Other schools have also embraced and overcome the awkwardness of online learning, and while students and parents have risen to the challenge, there is a palpable sense of joy at the return of classroom teaching.

Sale parent Christina Hillsley said the novelty of studying from home had long worn off for her two children, and they were both happy to be back at school.

“I have a daughter in year 10 at St Pat’s who is doing some year 11 subjects and she has really missed her friends and that social side of school,” she said.

“She has been working hard and keeping up with all the work, and her teachers have been available all the time, but there is no replacement for that face-to-face relationship.”

Mrs Hillsley said enthusing her five-year-old about learning at home had been more difficult, with motivation the major hurdle.

“His teachers at Stratford Primary School have been great, but he’s in grade one and doesn’t really understand why he had to do school work when he hasn’t actually been at school,” she said.

Mrs Hillsley, who works night shift and also studies, and her husband Ross, who works full time, are not hiding the fact home schooling has been a struggle.

Neither is teacher and mother of two Katie Johnston, who has juggled home schooling her own children with the demands of providing stimulating work for her VCAL students at Maffra Secondary College, and being available on call.

Like all teachers who have used a range of digital platforms to deliver lessons, Mrs Johnston has helped keep her students learning, busy and involved, but has been exhausted in the process.

“Like a whole lot of parents and teachers out there, I feel absolutely stretched,” she said.

Flexibility has been a key theme during the COVID-19 school closures.

Catholic Education Commission of Victoria executive director Jim Miles said parents and families in communities everywhere had been “incredibly supportive and flexible” about remote learning during the past several weeks.

“But I know many will join me in looking forward to the return to classroom-based teaching,” he said.

“It will be an exciting time as students reunite with their friends and peers, teachers recommence classroom learning, and our schools return to being vibrant and flourishing Catholic learning communities.”

More than 20 per cent of all Victorian students attend nearly 500 Catholic schools across the dioceses of Sale, Ballarat, Sandhurst and Melbourne.

Mr Miles said principals, teachers and staff had undertaken an enormous amount of work to prepare for the students’ return.

He said teachers were conscious that some students would need extra support to readjust, and monitoring each child’s progress would be a focus in this initial phase.

And there would be strict adherence to the recommended safety guidelines, including around hygiene practices and restricted access to school sites.

“It is important that we all play our part in minimising the risk of a COVID-19 outbreak causing further disruption to learning as schools move back towards full attendance,” Mr Miles said.

Wellington Shire mayor Alan Hall said with the return of children back to school, Wellington Shire school crossing supervisors would also be back at work outside schools throughout the municipality.

“To ensure the ongoing health and safety of our school crossing supervisors and the children returning to school, please practice social distancing while using the crossings to and from school,” he said.

“Motorists should also be aware that the speed restrictions around schools will be 40kmh during drop-off and pick-up times now that schools are back.”