Teachers are warning that schools in New South Wales and Victoria are not yet ready to go back, raising concerns over poor ventilation, a lack of air filters, and no guidance on how to safely manage class sizes.
“We have situations where room capacity leaves eight to 10 students out in the cold, literally,” the senior vice-president of the NSW Teachers Federation, Amber Flohm, said.
Teachers had asked the government to audit classroom sizes three months ago but had been ignored, she said.
In NSW, teachers say the government’s policy to have schools open their windows for natural ventilation means some students have already been forced to learn in freezing conditions.
One teacher in the Blue Mountains said students currently in face-to-face learning were bringing in blankets.
“It’s currently 13C here and raining,” she said on Wednesday. “We have been told that we can put the heater on, but the warmth is just blowing outside.
“Summer will be interesting too. We often have days well over 40 and have been told we can’t use the air-con as it recirculates the air in the room,” she said.
Many of the teachers Guardian Australia spoke to for this story are not allowed to speak to the media, so their identities have been kept anonymous.
In NSW, kindergarten, year 1 and year 12 students will return on 18 October, while years 2, 6 and 11 return on 25 October. All other grades will resume face-to-face learning on 1 November.
On Tuesday the state’s schools were handed ventilation reports, showing how many students they could have in each room and principles say they will not be able to fit every student in.
The NSW Secondary Principals’ Council president, Craig Petersen, said in some cases high schools had been told they could only have 23 to 28 students in a room, but most classes have 30.
“I can’t send six students to another classroom,” Petersen said.
He said he had no idea where schools would put the extra students.
“I would encourage parents to look for advice from their local school,” he said.
The World Health Organization has recognised that the virus is airborne and as such the risk of aerosol transmission becomes higher under certain conditions, such as poorly ventilated indoor crowded environments.
Flohm said plans to make schools Covid-safe would not be ready by next week, when schools were due to open their doors.
“Measures such as fans, CO2 monitors, could have been put in place by now, and therefore we wouldn’t be having these discussions that we are.”
A spokesperson for the NSW education department said it had 19,000 air purifiers that would be installed across the state, but did not say how schools would manage having less room for students.
“The department is confident that the vast majority of spaces in schools can be adequately ventilated through natural and mechanically assisted ventilation,” the spokesperson said.
In the last seven days, 31 schools in NSW had been declared exposure sites, according to figures from the data-gathering Twitter account #ZeroCovidSchools Australia.
Some parents are worried about an outbreak.
Helen Chai, 37, is mother to a five-year-old in Kellyville. She said if it was her choice, schools wouldn’t reopen yet.
“I think schools can start with opening for only half-day so that kids don’t need to have lunch at school, which could reduce the risk of transmission,” she said.
Some Victorian teachers also said the state government had not told them how many students it was safe to have in classrooms, or what the plan was if there was an outbreak in their school.
Although every Victorian state school has been promised air filters from the state government, teachers say they are yet to see them, with one telling Guardian Australia her school flat out refused to get one.
“They said we might eventually get them – people joked it would be term four,” one teacher from a primary school in Hoppers Crossing said.
“It seems strange because the government made a song and dance about it. My school hasn’t got any, and I haven’t heard of any other schools who got them.”
The classrooms at her school only have a few windows that open, they have no idea how many they can fit in each room safely, and there is no set plan for an outbreak, she said.
They start taking students from next week, with grades prep to two returning from 18 October for two to three days a week.
Everyone else will start part-time face-to-face learning on Tuesday 26 October before everyone is back five days a week in early November.
The Victorian government says it has more air purifiers getting to classrooms across Victoria each week.
“From infrastructure and CO2 audits of school buildings to more outdoor learning space alongside mandatory masks and vaccination for teachers and older students, we’re doing everything possible to ensure that schools are low-risk environments,” a spokesperson said.
“Government schools already have strict class size limits, which will help with physical distancing – with no more than 25 students in a classroom at secondary school and an average of 26 in each class at primary school.”
One early childhood educator in the city’s northern suburbs said the only ventilation they had was open doors – and students return on 26 October.
“If we can’t get fresh air we’re unable to minimise cross-infection.”
Another Victorian teacher who works in a primary school close to the city said his school could also not say when they would be getting filters.
“They haven’t arrived yet. We’ve got the promise, but it hasn’t born fruit yet,” he said.