(by Dr Don Perlgut, CEO, Community Colleges Australia)
How can Australian vocation education and training (VET) and post-secondary education reopen safely, in light of highly transmissible Omicron COVID-19? With almost 5.4 million Australian post-secondary students – 4 million in VET and 1.4 million in universities – this is an important question, as many students will need to be convinced that it is safe to return to in-person learning, following almost two years of on-again, off-again disruption. A comprehensive set of strategies, tactics, psychological preparation and protocols are needed.
For the duration of the pandemic, Australia has had the frequent luxury of tracking what overease pandemic responses worked best, working with an international advantage of prevention that has now all but disappeared. As 2022 dawned, Australia went from having one of the lowest rates of new COVID cases per capita in the world to one of the highest, reports The Guardian. Australia recently achieved the unhappy designation by the US Centers for Disease Control (CDC) warning US citizens to “avoid travel to Australia” because of our “Level 4: COVID-19 Very High” classification.
Much of VET relies on face-to-face training for foundation skills (language, literacy, numeracy and digital skills) and the care professions – aged, disability and child, especially training delivered by not-for-profit adult and community education (ACE) providers.
Australian Training Will Be Hit Hard Soon
Early this month, I predicted that Australia’s VET sector would be hit unusually hard by Omicron when training recommenced in early February. Many students, especially the most vulnerable and disadvantaged (those who have historically been well-supported by VET) may simply not enrol or stay away from in-person classes. For instance, in New South Wales, up to 20% of government-funded ACE students have a disability, and almost 12% are Indigenous and 36% are aged 45+: all of these groups (and individuals) must be extra cautious in preventing COVID-19 spread.
In addition, many trainers – often underpaid and on short-term and sessional contracts – will catch COVID and be unable to teach, or decide to withdraw from training and choose more reliable employment options, exacerbating a trainer shortage. Governments are tired of supporting impacted organisations, with Federal JobKeeper and state small business support removed for all except a few select industries. Surely, governments – facing February by-elections (NSW) and a national federal election in May – will re-institute some forms of business support; not doing so would be political suicide.
An early indicator of what training faces is how childcare has fared: “half of NSW children enrolled in major childcare services were absent in the first week of January as staff vacancies reached record highs and COVID-19 forced hundreds of centres to close.”
Online VET Courses May Flourish in the Short Term
By contrast, many online VET courses may flourish during our time in the “Shadow Lockdown” or “Clayton’s Lockdown” (a phrase nominated for Australian “2021 word of the year”), when many millions have decided to just “sit out” the virus and stop going out. But VET providers – and their students – will lose out either way. For instance, a majority of ACE students lack the financial or other resources to participate in remote or online learning, due to lack of proper digital tools and poor internet connections.
What’s Happening in the USA – The Rutgers Re-Opening Plan
Despite the pandemic, many American colleges and universities will soon recommence in-person classes in late January. But there’s a twist – they are doing so with detailed planning and protocols. Rutgers University (the low-fee public state university of New Jersey), which I mentioned in my earlier article, has laid down strict 31 January re-opening rules – that has resulted in the university tracking significantly better than local, state or national COVID-19 incidence:
- All students and staff have to be vaccinated, and must have a booster (third shot) if/when they are eligible to receive it – and must upload details to the University’s website.
- Use of libraries, student and campus centres, computer labs, and recreation centres will be limited to members of the university community only, to ensure vaccination status maintained.
- Face coverings are required indoors at all times (unless seated alone in an enclosed office). The university has obtained a supply of KN95 masks and will distribute these masks free to employees and students.
- Staff and students whose vaccination status are not up-to-date must quarantine after exposure, even if asymptomatic.
- All heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) systems have undergone extensive maintenance, upgrading and testing.
- All individuals who have received vaccination exemptions must undergo weekly or twice-weekly testing, which the university supplies free.
- The university has instituted “phased staffing”, which includes a hybrid – remote schedule associated with blocks of time, typically in one-week increments, whereby employee cohorts may be in person on the first and third week of a given month and remote the second and fourth week; alternate days/flexible work hours to limit the number of individuals and interactions among those on campus; and staggered reporting/departing to prevent bringing many people together at the beginning and end of the workday at common entry/exit points of buildings and reducing traffic in common spaces.
- In-person meetings are strongly discouraged.
Download the university’s “Guide to Returning to Rutgers” (PDF, 7.3mg) for more details.
The American CDC has updated its advice for Institutions of Higher Education, including community and technical colleges. Large number of institutions now require booster shots, issue high quality masks or have started their (northern) spring semester online. For instance, Princeton University requires that “All faculty, staff, researchers, graduate students, and undergraduate students who are not fully vaccinated are required to complete a Daily Symptom Check before coming to work on campus or before entering any University building.”
It is not too far to suggest that Australian VET providers and universities follow similar protocols.
What’s Happening in Australia
The focus on re-opening of Australian schools has overshadowed VET and university recommencements, which still remain unclear, despite active advocacy from staff unions. TAFE NSW, Australia’s largest provider – which does require staff (although not student) vaccination – has delayed first semester start date by four weeks, to late February, for a large number of courses – but not due to COVID, ostensibly because of course upgrading to meet national regulation requirements. Universities appear tentatively to open campuses as usual, but will allow for a great deal of online tuition, in part to accommodate international students who have not returned.
The next few months will be some of the most challenging for many Australian VET providers to maintain operational capability. Detailed planning, supported by clear state government guidance, is required and appears, sadly, to be only in early stages. We need to follow the sort of policies and protocols of institutions like Rutgers, and complement them with detailed outreach programs that ensure that we can reach an increasing number of disengaged students. More on this latter topic soon.
This is the second article in a series. Read the first article: Will Omicron Devastate Australian Vocational Education and Training in 2022?