Free RATs, booster mandate for Vic schools

Students and teachers across Victoria will undergo twice weekly rapid antigen testing.
Students and teachers across Victoria will undergo twice weekly rapid antigen testing.

Twice weekly rapid testing and mandatory COVID-19 vaccine booster doses will form part of Victoria's strategy to avoid a return to remote learning.

The Victorian government has unveiled its back-to-school plan ahead of students returning to classrooms from January 31 and it will feature a four-week surveillance testing regime.

More than 14 million rapid antigen tests will be delivered to primary and secondary schools as well as early childhood centres across the state, including 6.6 million before the first week of term one.

"It is about finding as many cases as we can and shutting down those chains of transmission," Premier Daniel Andrews told reporters on Sunday

"We have to get schools back. Once they get back, given how much Omicron is in the community, there will be cases."

Hundreds of thousands of Victorian students have missed more than 100 days in classrooms across the state's six COVID-19 lockdowns.

Education Minister James Merlino said schools would only return to remote learning as a "last resort" from now on.

"Schools are first to open and last to close," he said.

When the RATs are ready to be picked up, parents will be contacted by schools. Students and staff are asked to use them twice every week at home before school or childcare.

Those at specialist schools are advised to take a test every school day to protect medically vulnerable children from severe illness.

The cost of the tests will be split 50/50 between the Victorian and federal governments under an existing arrangement.

A similar plan has been announced in NSW, after collaboration between the two states.

Unlike NSW, a third vaccine dose will become compulsory for Victorian school and early childhood staff by February 25, or within three months and two weeks of having their second jab.

Mr Merlino said 99.7 per cent of staff were double-dose vaccinated by the end of term four last year, and he expressed confidence the workforce would "enthusiastically respond".

The expanded mandate was based on Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton's advice that it would mitigate outbreaks in schools amid the Omicron wave and give the workforce greater protection.

While asymptomatic education staff identified as close contacts can continue working with daily negative rapid tests, a replacement worker pool has been launched for government schools.

In addition, the state government will deliver 51,000 air purifiers to Victorian public and low-fee independent schools by the first day of term one to increase ventilation in classrooms and other high-traffic spaces.

Ten thousand were yet to be distributed as of Friday.

Students in grade three or above must still wear masks indoors and some classes may be moved outdoors to prevent transmission, after more than 1800 schools applied for a shade cloth grant.

The United Nations children's agency UNICEF welcomed Victoria and NSW's "united and consistent" schools approach.

"Children have suffered from school closures during the pandemic and it is essential that we continue to strive to keep schools open," the group's Australian chief executive Tony Stuart said.

Shadow education spokesman David Hodgett mostly approved of the plan but was critical of the third dose vaccine mandate for education workers.

"I'm all for vaccinations but I don't know if mandating it works," he said.

Victoria recorded another 14 COVID-related deaths and 13,091 new cases on Sunday, its lowest daily figure since January 3.

Professor Sutton believes infections during the state's Omicron wave have "very likely" peaked, and he hopes ICU patient numbers and deaths will stabilise soon.

Australian Associated Press