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It was an all-too familar swab up the nose, then a surprise offer of a jab in the arm for members of the Al-Taqwa College community on Thursday.
Staff and students aged 16 and older who fronted at the college to be tested for COVID-19 on Thursday were offered a surprise Pfizer chaser, in a “pilot pop-up vaccination program” directed at a part of Melbourne with one of the lowest vaccination rates in the state.
Last year, senior students at the independent school in Truganina were a major source of transmission of the virus in one of the state’s biggest clusters, which spread to more than 180 students and staff.
With the school once again at the centre of an outbreak, students aged 16 and older, staff and their families were also offered a shot of the Pfizer vaccine on-campus.
The pop-up vaccination program is being run by the Department of Health in; a first for the state involving a school’s staff and senior students.
It comes after Wesley College independently locked in plans to begin vaccinating its staff on-site from Friday in a move questioned by the state’s health minister Martin Foley.
“It is a mystery as to where that particular school got that,” Mr Foley said in Parliament.
About 2500 staff and students at the independent Islamic college in Truganina were directed into 14-day quarantine on Wednesday and told to get tested.
A handful of other non-government schools also closed their doors on Thursday as a precaution, after participating with Al-Taqwa College in the Bachar Houli Community Cup this week, an inter-school Australian Rules football carnival involving Melbourne’s Islamic schools.
A teacher at Al-Taqwa, aged in her 20s who lives in Hobsons Bay, tested positive on Wednesday. Her husband, who plays for Newport Football Club, has also tested positive as have two family contacts.
Maisam Lakhani, father of three Al-Taqwa students, was among the early arrivals at the school on Thursday.
Mr Lakhani said the fact the teacher who tested positive to COVID-19 was a mystery case was a concern to the wider community, not just to Al-Taqwa.
“I really think the school has been unlucky, just like Victoria has been unlucky,” Mr Lakhani said.
“We had a string of cases [last year] but before those cases and after those cases when the school reopened, I was pretty satisfied with the measures the school has taken.”
This included a ban on parents entering the school to drop off and pick up their children, he said.
More than 150 Al-Taqwa staff and students were infected by COVID-19 last year in one of the state’s biggest clusters.
Mr Lakhani’s son Eli, 11, said he was “sad that we have to be in quarantine but glad that we can skip school”.
The college had already committed to a return to remote learning for the next two weeks, beginning on Friday, before the state’s wider seven-day lockdown was announced on Thursday afternoon, meaning all but vulnerable students and the children of essential workers are set to return to learning at home.
Fatima Jawad and her sons Khaled, who is in year 4, and Mohammed, a prep student, were also waiting outside Al-Taqwa’s gates.
Ms Jawad said she felt bad for the students who would be forced to miss more class time.
“They’ve been missing a lot [of school]; it’s not fair for the kids, they missed a lot last year,” Ms Jawad said.
But she praised the school’s handling of the pandemic, saying they had just been unlucky, despite doing daily temperature checks of students and enforcing mask wearing for students aged 12 and older.
“The school’s been doing everything well,” she said, adding that the school had moved quickly when word got out that a teacher had tested positive.
“I think it’ll be OK because they straight away closed the school; as soon as they knew, they shut it down here.”
Khaled and Mohammed said they missed being in class.
Three of the schools who joined Al-Taqwa for the Bachar Houli Community Cup on Wednesday – Ilim College, the Australian International Academy and the Islamic College of Melbourne – took it upon themselves to close on Thursday as a precaution.
Kerim Buday, the chief financial officer of Ilim College, said the school’s executive made a quick decision to shut on Wednesday night, “for the good of our school and the wider community”.
A number of students at Ilim College have siblings at Al-Taqwa College, he said.
The AFL later emailed the school to inform them that “no action needs to be taken from any of the participating schools in the cup as there is no primary link, although as in all cases we urge anyone who is experiencing cold/flu like symptoms, to get tested immediately”.
Murdoch Children’s Research Institute group leader Fiona Russell, who led a study of COVID-19 school closures last year, said while outdoor events were relatively low-risk for transmission, a plan to keep schools open should look at restrictions on certain activities.
“The schools have been very conservative and very precautionary and that’s a good thing of course, but the risk actually is very low,” Professor Russell said.
“Really, it’s more about taking a geographical approach where possible so say it’s confined to Melbourne and then there’s no need to close schools in Shepparton or regional places like that,” she said.
Professor Russell said schools needed a plan for reopening and staying open through outbreaks, which included teachers and senior students being prioritised for vaccinations.
“At the moment we don’t have a plan. We just shut schools and then just open them back up again. We have mask-wearing and precautions of not going to school when you’re sick but we could do a lot more than that,” she said.
“We’re 18 months into this pandemic and we don’t have a plan for schools. I don’t know why.”
An Al-Taqwa spokesman said the college was “doing everything possible and everything in its power as it has through the pandemic to co-operate with the authorities and to contain this outbreak”.
“We are so far very optimistic that things are going in the right direction.”
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