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Staff at an independent school in St Kilda have been warned they will be stood down if they do not return to campus to teach students on-site at the beginning of term 4 and in any potential future lockdowns.
Cheder Levi Yitzchok, a small school with just over 100 students, told staff in an email on Thursday that anyone who declines to come back on-site next term will have to take unpaid leave and will be replaced.
Cheder Levi Yitzchok school in St Kilda.Credit:Eddie Jim
“Due to the high numbers of students in our school who require on-site supervision, our needs and requirements do differ from other schools during this time,” principal Rabbi David Rahmani wrote.
The Victorian government is yet to say if students in greater Melbourne will resume face-to-face learning next term, but has ruled out a return in term 3.
Most students have been taught remotely during lockdown, with in-class supervision limited to the children of permitted workers and vulnerable children.
The email, co-signed by Rabbi Rahmani, business manager David Pettitt and chairman Eliezer Kornhauser, said the school will enhance its COVID-safe protocols in term 4.
“We understand that there may be some hesitancy around coming in. Should a staff member feel that they are unable/unwilling to come in and fulfil their regular duties, they will need to take this time as unpaid leave and the school will find a replacement,” the September 2 email said.
”The Cheder’s position will remain in place for all ensuing lockdowns,” it said.
In a statement, Rabbi Rahmani and Mr Kornhauser said Victorian Health Department guidelines required the school to remain open for students who are deemed vulnerable or who are children of essential workers.
“We are a small school and we are struggling to resource the supervision of students with a reduced complement of staff,” they said.
“The Health Department and police have both visited the school in recent weeks. They reviewed our paperwork and current school operations, and found that we are complying with regulations with regards to those who are attending.
“We respect and care about the health of our students and staff. In accordance with our usual practices, staff who have medical conditions, vulnerabilities or other concerns have been invited to discuss their circumstances.”
Rabbi Rahmani and Mr Kornhauser did not specify whether the school would enforce the policy should it conflict with directions of Victorian health authorities, or the Chief Health Officer, but did say they obtained legal advice before sending the email.
Jacqui Majzner, a former student services co-ordinator at the school, said administrators had been reluctant to let teachers work from home during the COVID-19 pandemic and that there is a huge amount of anxiety among teaching staff.
“There’s a real likelihood of them losing their job or not getting paid. There’s a definite reluctance to let teachers work from home,” she said.
“The teachers generally toe the line, they’re scared, they need the jobs. There is a huge amount of anxiety amongst staff.”
Ms Majzner, who helped establish the school but ceased working there in February this year, said that sometimes secular teachers would clash with school administrators if issues of religious instruction came into conflict with education.
“It’s a religious school, that’s the main focus,” she said.
“The secular teachers take that on, they choose to work there, they have to follow those rules, but when it comes to their safety they shouldn’t have to compromise their own safety, and the safety of their kids and family members.”
The school’s ultimatum closely follows a decision by Catholic boys’ school Xavier College last week to mandate the COVID-19 vaccination for staff by the start of term 4, in what is believed to be the first mandating of the jab by a Victorian school.
Paul O’Halloran, a workplace relations specialist at Colin Biggers & Paisley Lawyers, said school staff did not have an unfettered right to work from home if the government indicates a return to face-to-face learning.
“Many students are suffering the mental health effects of prolonged remote learning,” Mr O’Halloran said. “It is likely to be a lawful and reasonable direction in the context of the employment relationship to request teaching staff to return to onsite classroom teaching.”
The Independent Education Union said it was concerned by any suggestion that staff would be pressured to work at school while remote learning is mandated.
“All schools should be operating in accordance with the government guidelines, which follow expert health advice,” general secretary Deb James said.
“Right now, that means remote learning for all students except a small group which includes the children of authorised workers and those deemed vulnerable.”
Teachers have not been specifically prioritised for vaccinations in Victoria until this week, with school staff also eligible to join the priority queue in the Andrews government’s 10-day vaccination blitz of year 12 students.
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