“The Premier needs to understand the pressure that his restrictions are putting on families,” Mr O’Brien said. “Other states are moving to get kids back to school safely and Victoria must do the same.”
The Liberal leader proposed extra safety measures for schools, including staggered drop-offs and pick-ups, blocking parents from school premises, banning contact sports and extra-curricular activities and offering extra funding for deep cleaning and hand sanitiser.
Teachers and school staff who are at heightened risk from the virus due to health or age should continue to work from home, Mr O’Brien said.
The opposition’s demands came after Prime Minister Scott Morrison on Friday called for schools to be opened to all students.
Opposition education spokeswoman Cindy McLeish said Victoria should follow the advice of the Morrison government and the Commonwealth’s Chief Medical Officer, Professor Brendan Murphy, that children should return to school for the rest of term two.
“With the Victorian government at odds with the Australian government, there are too many cases of Victorian students being turned away from state schools and parents worrying whether they have to quit their jobs to teach their kids,” she said.
Education Minister James Merlino on Saturday resisted calls to change the government’s policy.
“The advice to parents has not changed – if you can learn from home, you must learn from home,” he said.
“That is the Victorian government’s clear message. That is the Chief Health Officer’s clear message.
“Remote and flexible learning is expected to continue for all of term two. However, if the advice from the [Chief Health Officer] changes, we will of course respond to that.”
Victoria’s Deputy Chief Health Officer, Dr Annaliese van Diemen, said national cabinet’s announcement had not affected Victoria’s health advice but the state was reviewing its position “on a regular basis”.
“I’m not going to comment on what conversations may or may not have happened at national cabinet between our Premier, other premiers and the Prime Minister,” she said.
“Our advice remains the same and our policy position at this point in time remains the same.”
Victorian schools remain open for the children of parents who must work, such as healthcare and essential service workers, however 97 per cent of students have been learning at home in the first two weeks of term, according to the state government.
The Morrison government released updated medical advice about schools after a meeting of the national cabinet on Friday.
The new guidance from the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee says there is no need for students to keep 1.5 metres apart or limit numbers in a room to one person per four square metres.
New figures also show there are very few cases of COVID-19 among Victoria’s children and youth: 58 people in Victoria aged under 19 have contracted the virus, out of 1343 confirmed cases as of Friday.
But education unions said the latest advice was contradictory and confusing.
Australian Education Union federal president Correna Haythorpe said governments must prioritise the needs of teachers, principals and support staff in any decisions about changing COVID-19 teaching arrangements.
“Schools are also workplaces that are full of adults. It is still not clear how governments expect schools to manage social distancing for adults,” Ms Haythorpe said. “It is contradictory to have one set of rules for adults outside of the school gate and another inside.”
The Independent Education Union of Australia said most schools and students across Australia had been operating remotely for weeks, and that the small number of students and staff attending school had been maintaining social distancing in line with guidelines the committee published on April 16.
The guidelines said students and teachers should all maintain 1.5 metres distance from others.
The union said the new advice “will cause considerable angst for our members and school communities”.
States have adopted differing positions on remote learning. NSW plans to progressively reopen schools from May 11 after two weeks of remote learning; South Australia and WA are encouraging parents to send their children to school when term two starts tomorrow; Queensland will stick with remote learning until at least May 22, when it will review the situation.
Adam Carey is Education Editor. He joined The Age in 2007 and has previously covered state politics, transport, general news, the arts and food.
Michael is a reporter for The Age.