Fitzroy North school that flouted lockdown rules hit by COVID outbreak

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A Fitzroy North primary school whose principal has repeatedly flouted public health orders and invited families to send in their children during lockdowns has been hit by a significant coronavirus outbreak.

Premier Daniel Andrews warned on Sunday that reopening Melbourne’s classrooms – closed since August 5 – would cause COVID-19 cases to quickly spread through schools, forcing many to close again almost immediately.

With the state recording 392 new coronavirus infections on Sunday, the state’s Deputy Chief Health Officer Dan O’Brien said 30 students and staff had tested positive at the Fitzroy Community School in Brunswick Street, Fitzroy North.

“It looks like the case numbers are at least 30 but it’s growing from there,” he said.

Emails obtained by The Age reveal the principal, Timothy Berryman, invited parents to send their children in repeatedly while Melbourne has been in lockdown, arguing that the damage to their mental health from extended periods of remote learning was potentially severe, while the health risks to children from catching coronavirus were negligible.

News of the school outbreak came as Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced Victoria would get more than 400,000 extra Pfizer and Moderna vaccine shots. It followed Mr Andrews’ claim last week that Victoria was being short-changed by Canberra by about 340,000 doses of Pfizer vaccines, in preference for Sydney.

Health Minister Greg Hunt on Sunday said the additional 417,000 vaccine doses showed the Morrison government had “responded to and exceeded the Victorian government’s request”.

Mr Berryman, whose “alternative independent school” is now a tier-1 exposure site, told families on September 9 he believed it was “only a matter of time” before there was a positive case at the school, and expressed hope that schools would be permitted to remain open with positive cases in future.

“I can sincerely say that it has been a much longer run than I had hoped for or expected,” he wrote.

In a June 3 email to parents, Mr Berryman states: “I cannot in good conscience continue to request that you continue to keep your children at home. Please feel free to send your child to school if you feel that this is best for them or best for your family balance. I do not write this lightly, as this does breach government imposed directives for schools.”

Three days later he wrote that the Department of Health had contacted the school and warned him to comply. By late July, Mr Berryman was again inviting parents to breach remote learning rules. “I am again offering you all the option of sending your children to school,” he wrote in an email on July 20.

The Age attempted to contact Mr Berryman but could not reach him on Sunday.

Mr Andrews declined to answer when asked on Sunday whether it should be mandatory for teachers to be vaccinated, but flagged the government was considering compelling some people to get immunised.

“Making it mandatory in a number of areas is very important. It won’t just be schools, it won’t just be teachers, it won’t just be nurses – it will be a whole range of different people because we think it’s [important]. I will make those announcements when I’m ready.”

Vaccination Lead from DPV Health Kylie Rhook sets up a micro vaccination centre at Broadmeadows Community Hub.Credit:Paul Jeffers

Victoria on Sunday launched a “pop-up” vaccination program targeting postcodes in the north and west of Melbourne. Sixty-five per cent of new coronavirus cases detailed on Sunday were in Melbourne’s north, particularly the council area of Hume, where 147 new cases were recorded. Just 107 of the cases detailed on Sunday were from known outbreaks.

Eight of the pop-up vaccination centres will be in secondary colleges in a bid to get more students immunised. These high schools are in Dandenong, Point Cook, Gladstone Park, Roxburgh, Brunswick, Tarneit, Werribee and Lakeview Senior College in Caroline Springs.

Lakeview Senior College principal Shayne Rule said more than 110 students and staff had booked in for a jab on-campus this Thursday, but more had already had their first shot or made an appointment elsewhere.

Mr Rule said his senior students’ desire to be vaccinated as soon as possible was overwhelming, although a small number of parents had expressed hesitancy or outright opposition to the notion of their children being vaccinated.

Osama Jabry receiving his COVID-19 vaccination from nurse Sonya El-Abbas, accompanied by his wife Manal Kareen, and children Rokaya and Hussien at Broadmeadows Town Hall vaccination hub.Credit:Paul Jeffers

“I know of a number of kids who come from anti-vaccine families and the kids have hopped on buses, made their own appointments and gone and got shots without the support of their parents,” he said. “I really admire their courage and commitment.”

Year 7 student Lucy Kerr, 13, who attends Our Lady of Mercy College in Heidelberg, will become eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine from Monday and said she was eager to book in for the jab “as soon as possible”.

“I’m just excited for when there are enough people vaccinated that we can end lockdowns,” she said.

Kylie Kerr with her 13-year-old daughter Lucy at home in Greensborough. On Monday, 12-15 year old children will be eligible for COVID-19 vaccination.Credit:Paul Jeffers

Lucy is in her first year at her school and said it had been much harder to make new friends at her new school learning remotely much of the time.

Opening up vaccination to students aged 12 to 15 would ease the worry that schools would reopen only to have to shut again if cases climbed, she said.

“It will help us be able to go back to school and there not be this worry of, what if we go back into lockdown,” she said.

Her mother Kylie Kerr, a lecturer at ACU, said she was confident the vaccine was safe for her daughter.

“I’ve had it and I’m fine and my husband has just had it and he’s fine,” she said. “It’s worse to get COVID.”

On Sunday, Mr Andrews faced questioning over when students were likely to return to schools for classes. He declined to nominate a date, saying modelling being done by the Burnet Institute held the key to reopening for face-to-face learning.

He said he wanted schools back this year but a plan for the rest of the school year would be made public in about a week.

Despite hundreds of daily infections, Victoria’s contact-tracing team is reaching almost 100 per cent of COVID-19 cases within 24 hours and primary close contacts within 48 hours, Deputy Chief Health Officer Dan O’Brien said. He added that while contact tracing had been “challenged”, it had been meeting the national benchmarks since the beginning of the latest outbreak.

Government sources told The Age the public could expect a road map that outlined when, and how, all Victorian students would be allowed to return to school, giving parents and children a level of certainty – with added caveats – heading into term 4.

It is unlikely that all year levels will be able to return at the same time. The Premier also flagged that the government was considering potential staggered start and end times and improvements to ventilation.

The Department of Education has drawn up several plans, and is awaiting the Chief Health Officer’s approval following the outcomes of the Burnet Institute modelling to determine what level of COVID-19 cases Victoria could handle without stretching the healthcare system.

Victoria’s public health workforce status, including the surge capacity, remains in the “green zone” under the Commonwealth’s traffic light system, meaning it is “within capacity” and does not require extra support. Seven per cent of intensive care patients in Victoria have been diagnosed with COVID-19, compared to 24 per cent in NSW, where the health system has been strained.

Mr Andrews previously promised once the state reaches 70 per cent of eligible people having a first vaccination there would be an expanded 10-kilometre travel limit, a three-hour exercise limit, and outdoor personal training and real estate inspections would return. By Sunday, 66.2 per cent of Victorians had a first vaccination and 40.8 per cent were double dosed.

When the Premier was told on Sunday of the extra vaccine doses being sent to Victoria, he told reporters it was the first he had heard of the matter.

Federal government sources, who asked not to be named so they could describe discussions between the state and federal governments, said the Commonwealth had discussions with the Victorian government on Friday and Saturday to let them know that extra doses would be allocated to the state.

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