On the same day the state government announced its term one school return plans, Ballarat's major vaccination destination was facing immense patronage.
With a week to go before Victorian schools return, Premier Daniel Andrews and Education Minister James Merlino announced a strategy to keep schools and kindergartens open based on millions of rapid antigen tests distributed to schools.
Hours before the announcement, a large queue of people hoping for a booster shot stretched from the Mercure Ballarat clinic along Main Road and into the nearby car park. The clinic was shut to walk-ins by early afternoon, its allotment of vaccinations utilised. A number of hopefuls were turned away and were asked to return on Monday.
After two years of disrupted education, Mr Andrews is committed to opening schools.
"Face-to-face learning is the best option for our kids' learning and wellbeing," he said. "That's why we've done the work to get students safely back."
Surveillance testing, ventilation, vaccinations, and comprehensive workforce planning are central to the government's strategy.
Rapid antigen testing will be in place for at least the first four weeks of term one. The government aims to deliver more than 14 million rapid antigen tests to educational institutions. Surveillance testing will be strongly recommended for all primary and secondary school students and staff and early childhood education and care staff. It is to occur twice-weekly at home.
Students and staff at specialist schools will be recommended to test five days each week. Education staff must receive a booster dose by February 25 if they are already eligible.
51,000 air purifiers will be delivered to government and low-fee non-government schools for the first day of term one.
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The government is urging families to book their children for vaccinations.
Education staff have been classified as critical workers, allowing household contacts to voluntarily continue working if they are asymptomatic and return daily negative rapid antigen tests.
A pool of inactive teachers, support staff, retired principals, and administrative staff will cover workforce shortages.
If a COVID case does arise in an educational setting, the institution will inform staff, parents, and carers, and provide necessary advice.
Mask wearing indoors will continue for students in Year 3 and above.
Teachers will be required to wear masks at all times when not teaching.
Loreto College principal Michelle Brodrick is looking forward to the year, but is cautious.
"(We) will be delighted to have our staff and students back," Ms Brodrick said.
"As we are still awaiting detailed guidelines, we are unable to comment on the exact process of the use of rapid antigen testing in our school. However, our staff will be working with these guidelines to ensure we continue to put learning and student and staff wellbeing at the forefront of all we do."
Ballarat Clarendon College principal David Shepherd indicated the health of all remained paramount.
"The state government's commitment to ensure that all students can attend school, work with their teachers, coaches, and support staff, and connect with their friends and peers requires careful navigation," Mr Shepherd said.
"The safety and health of all students, staff, and families is our, and the state government's, highest priority."
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