COVID-fueled teacher shortage sees Education Department head office staff back in WA schools


More than 500 Department for Education staff have been pulled from its headquarters in East Perth and redeployed to teach in schools as COVID-19 decimates the ranks of teachers.

Western Australia is expected to surpass 700,000 COVID-19 infections since the start of the pandemic, and one in 10 cases is currently infected with the virus, having tested positive last week.

Schools have long been one of the hardest hit environments and staffing shortages continue to be a major issue, with relief teachers in unprecedented demand.

Education Minister Sue Ellery insisted the system was working well, given the challenges.

“Look, it’s tight, staff tight, like it’s all workplaces in Western Australia right now,” she said.

“We have asked all those working at the Ministry of Education’s head office and satellite type sites, who were registered to teach, to make themselves available to leave the central office and teach.

“And people are doing it. Like last Friday, we had 516 central offices and other sites helping schools.”

Sue Ellery says staff and students can still wear masks if they wish.(ABC News: Cason Ho)

Ms Ellery denied the scrapping of close contact rules and the indoor mask mandate was poorly timed, and said it would be worse if that level of pressure came at the height of flu season.

But she urged people to take precautions as winter approaches.

“We are not preventing anyone from wearing a mask, and we are not preventing students and school staff from wearing a mask,” the education minister said.

“We say, ‘If you can’t social distance, you should seriously consider wearing a mask.’

“And many of them are.”

Hard-to-find replacement teachers

Alec O’Connell, president of the WA Independent Schools Association and principal of Scotch College, said schools were coping, but each morning presented a challenge to find relief staff.

“A school I spoke to recently had 11 substitute teachers every day,” Dr. O’Connell said.

“Most of the colleagues I talk to are finding relief very difficult at the moment, and it doesn’t matter what size of school you are, but I imagine for regional schools and smaller schools it would be even more difficult. .

“A lot of schools have their regular substitute teachers, which is really important, but I think schools have found it very difficult to even access them, with some of their regular substitute teachers also having COVID.”

Dr O’Connell said schools routinely merge classes and other staff, including principals, step in to teach.

But he said teachers had become well practiced at leaving detailed lesson plans and, after periods of homework, students were used to adapting.

Parents wary as COVID hits

Perth school-aged father-of-three Tom O’Halloran said his family had just come through COVID-19 and were wary of other illnesses.

“We had a bout of gastro before we got COVID, and we were about to get our flu shots,” he said.

A man stands in front of a school
Perth father-of-three Tom O’Halloran says his family has had COVID-19 and he is keen for them to get a flu shot.(ABC News: Ash Davis)

“So we’re going to go on and do that, because winter is coming and we don’t really want to get hit again.”

Mother-of-two Linna Tang said she noticed a few illnesses in families in her children’s elementary school, which she was keen to avoid after recently having COVID-19.

“There’s a bit of flu and a lot of sniffling noses, so there’s definitely stuff going on,” she said.

A woman in front of a school with two children
A mother of two, Linna Tang runs a small business and says COVID-19 has been disruptive. (ABC News)

“COVID has been quite disruptive with work. We run a small business and it was difficult to close the doors.

“It was for two and a half weeks, and we just reopened this week. It was tough having to dip into our savings.”

Another dad, Tyson Cherrie, said while COVID-19 had been disruptive, removing the mask mandate had made school a little more normal for his son.

A smiling man in front of a school
Tyson Cherrie says the mask mandate had been difficult for his son. (ABC News: Ash Davis)

“I realized a few weeks ago that Alfie hadn’t seen his teacher’s face until then, and vice versa,” he said.

Almost all of Western Australia’s COVID-19 cases have occurred in the past six months, and around half have been recorded in the past six weeks alone.

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