Managing COVID-19 risks: Education

Information about managing risks of exposure to COVID-19 associated with early childhood education, schools, TAFEs and training.

Pandemic Orders and industry requirements are regularly updated

This guidance is correct as at time of publication, however, Victorian Minister for Health's Pandemic Orders and industry requirements are regularly updated. Readers of this guidance need to check the latest Victorian Pandemic Orders for applicability.

Restrictions apply across Victoria

Depending on your industry your workplace may:

  • be subject to restricted operations or industry specific obligations
  • be subject to COVID-19 vaccination requirements

It is mandatory for every Victorian business with on-site operations to have a COVIDSafe Plan. COVIDSafe plans should be reviewed and updated regularly.

COVID-19 restrictions in Victoria may be updated at any time. You must stay up to date with changes for your industry.

How are my occupational health and safety (OHS) obligations impacted by the restrictions?

There is no change to your obligations under the Occupational Health and Safety Act 2004 (OHS Act) and Occupational Health and Safety Regulations 2017 (OHS Regulations) as a result of the Pandemic Orders issued by the Victorian Minister for Health.

Preparation of a COVIDSafe Plan forms part of the development of a safe system of work. However, having a COVIDSafe Plan and complying with the Victorian Pandemic Orders does not necessarily mean you have complied with all of your duties under the OHS Act and OHS Regulations.

You must follow any Pandemic Orders that apply to how your business must operate, and ensure that you are meeting your obligations under the OHS Act. Employees must also comply with their duties under the OHS Act.

Transmission of COVID-19

Researchers are still learning about COVID-19, its long-term effects and emerging variants.

COVID-19 is a respiratory disease caused by a coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) that can result in mild to very severe illness and death.

The main way COVID-19 spreads is when a person with COVID-19 exhales droplets and/or aerosol particles containing the virus. This can happen when they breathe out, cough, sneeze, speak, shout or sing.

Exhaled droplets range in size. Large droplets settle out of the air faster than they evaporate. Small droplets remain suspended in the air for longer periods. Very fine droplets may contain the virus, and can stay suspended in the air for anywhere from minutes to hours. Small droplets and particles are often referred to as ‘aerosols’.

Transmission of COVID-19 can occur in a number of ways, and possibly in combination.

1. Airborne transmission

This occurs when a person inhales aerosols that may contain viral particles that are infectious.

While the risk of transmission is highest when close to an infectious person, air currents can disperse small droplets and particles over long distances. These may be inhaled by people who have not had face-to-face contact or been in the same space with the infectious person. Airborne transmission is more likely to occur in indoor or enclosed settings that are poorly ventilated, crowded, or both. In these kinds of settings, the virus may remain suspended in the air for longer and increase the risk of spread as people tend to spend longer periods in indoor settings.

2. Droplet transmission

Transmission occurs where exhaled droplets from a person with COVID-19 come into contact with another person's mucosal surfaces (nose, mouth or eyes). The risk of transmission is highest when close to the source, where the concentration of these droplets is greatest.

3. Contaminated surfaces transmission

People may also become infected by touching surfaces that have been contaminated by the virus, and then touching their eyes, nose or mouth without cleaning their hands.

COVID-19 and education environments

Under the OHS Act employers have a duty to provide and maintain, so far as is reasonably practicable, a working environment that is safe and without risks to the health of employees. This means preventing and reducing risks to health and safety, including psychological health associated with potential exposure to COVID-19.

Employers also have a duty to consult with employees and health and safety representatives (HSRS), if any, so far as is reasonably practicable, on matters related to health or safety that directly affect, or are likely to directly affect them. This includes consultation on identifying hazards or risks, and decisions about how to control risks associated with COVID-19.

Employees have a duty to take reasonable care of their own and others' health and safety in the workplace and to cooperate with their employers about any action they take to comply with the OHS Act or Regulations.

Ensure employees know what to do

An employer's duty to reduce risks associated with exposure to COVID-19 so far as is reasonably practicable includes ensuring that:

  • employees know what to do or who to notify if they feel unwell or suspect they've been infected, according to the information provided by DH
  • any unwell employee does not attend the workplace, including those who have been tested for COVID-19 and received a negative test result
  • employees who have been tested for COVID-19 and are awaiting their results or who are confirmed COVID-19 cases should follow the Pandemic Orders that apply to them

The symptoms of COVID-19 to watch out for are: fever, chills or sweats, cough, sore throat, shortness of breath, runny nose and loss or change in sense of smell or taste.

Some people may also experience headache, muscle soreness, stuffy nose, nausea, vomiting and diarrhoea.

If an employee develops any of the symptoms of COVID-19, however mild, they should:

  • self-isolate immediately, seek advice from their doctor or the Victorian Coronavirus Hotline on 1800 675 398 and get tested
  • tell their employer as soon as possible, follow the procedures their workplace has in place, and update their employer if their situation changes (for example if they receive a positive COVID-19 diagnosis)

In the event of a suspected or confirmed COVID-19 case at the workplace, Pandemic Orders made by the Victorian Minister for Health may also require employers to take specific response actions.

Identifying risks

Employers must identify hazards and if necessary, assess the level of risk to the health of employees from exposure to COVID-19 at their workplace. This must be done in consultation with health and safety representatives (HSRs), if any, and employees, so far as is reasonably practicable.

For example, risks of exposure to COVID-19 that may arise in education settings include:

  • employees, children, students, attending services (such as Specialist Service Officers or nurses) or visitors who are unwell attending the premises
  • indoor environments, particularly in crowded or inadequately ventilated spaces where staff, children and students are gathered
  • transmission of the virus through high-touch surfaces (eg tables, chairs, doorknobs, light switches, remotes, handles, desks)
  • sharing facilities such as bathrooms, kitchens and communal break areas

Employers must also identify whether there are other increased risks as a result of COVID-19, such as:

  • vulnerable staff or students who are at greater risk of more serious illness if they are infected with COVID-19
  • stress or fatigue caused by an increased workload and ongoing changes to the way work is done
  • instances of violence and aggression, either in online or onsite settings
  • risks that may be associated with working from home, such as suitability of workstation set up, mental health risks or risks of family violence

The Department of Education and Training (DET) provides advice about requirements for managing the risk of COVID-19 in education settings. When implementing advice issued by DET in relation to risk assessments, employers need to tailor the implementation of risk controls to their workplace.

DET's COVID-19 Safety Management Plan (COVIDSafe Plan) applies to all Victorian government schools, and may also be useful as a guide for other education settings, including in non-government schools.

Controlling risks

Where a risk to health is identified at a workplace, employers must, so far as is reasonably practicable, eliminate the risk. Where it isn't possible to eliminate the risk, it must be reduced, so far as is reasonably practicable.

The types of control measures required depends on the level of risk as well as the availability and suitability of controls for each workplace, including individual work areas.

Each group of employees and contractors in the workplace should be considered. For example, cleaning and maintenance staff, delivery drivers, student support staff or visiting health services.

Face masks in workplaces

Pandemic Orders made by the Victorian Minister for Health about face masks are in place across Victoria. For more information see the guidance Managing COVID-19 risks: Face masks in workplaces.

COVID-19 vaccinations in workplaces

COVID-19 vaccination is one control measure that can reduce the risk of COVID-19 in workplaces. This should be part of a suite of controls used to reduce the risk of COVID-19 in workplaces.

Workplace screening

Employers should implement a screening process to minimise the introduction of COVID-19 into the workplace, where appropriate. Employers should ensure that persons entering the workplace are not subject to any Pandemic Order requirements (such as isolation or quarantine). Employers should instruct those who have been in contact with confirmed cases of COVID-19 to follow DH procedures and any relevant Pandemic Orders.

Physical distancing, ventilation, hygiene and other controls

Physical distancing, ventilation, hygiene, cough and sneeze etiquette and cleaning are primary risk control measures and should be implemented in accordance with relevant sector-specific guidance, set out below.

For schools, including specialist schools, and early childhood settings it may not be appropriate or practical to maintain 1.5 metres between children, or between employees and children. Where it is not possible to undertake work tasks and maintain physical distancing, the effective implementation of other controls, such as hand and respiratory hygiene and cleaning, becomes even more important.

Providing an adequate supply of fresh air (ventilation) to enclosed areas of a workplace assists in diluting the number of airborne virus particles and lowers transmission risk. Adequate ventilation can be achieved using natural or mechanical ventilation, or a combination of the two.

In areas where it is not possible to maintain adequate ventilation and there is a high risk of transmission, portable high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filtered air cleaners may be appropriate to be used to reduce the concentration of airborne virus particles and other aerosol contaminants. These units are not a substitute for ventilation. Employers should assess the risk and/or undertake a ventilation assessment to identify what ventilation strategies are appropriate for the space and whether an air cleaner is needed and consider operational placement and maintenance of these units.

Cleaning needs to be conducted in accordance with the relevant workplace guidelines.

For information about how to control risks in early childhood education, schools (including specialist schools), TAFES and training:

Note: Employers need to consider the specific circumstances of their workplace when they are assessing risks and implementing controls, to ensure control measures are adequate and appropriate.

Legal duties

Employers have duties under the OHS Act, which include that they must, so far as is reasonably practicable:

  • Provide and maintain a working environment that is safe and without risks to the health of employees and independent contractors.
  • Provide adequate facilities for the welfare of employees and independent contractors.
  • Provide such information, instruction, training or supervision to employees and independent contractors as is necessary to enable those persons to perform their work in a way that is safe and without risks to health.
  • Monitor the health of employees of the employer.
  • Monitor conditions at any workplace under the employer's management and control.
  • Provide information concerning health and safety to employees, including (where appropriate) in languages other than English.
  • Ensure that persons other than employees of the employer are not exposed to risks to their health or safety arising from the conduct of the undertaking of the employer.
  • Consult with employees and HSRs, if any, on matters related to health or safety that directly affect, or are likely to directly affect them.

A person with management or control of a workplace must ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, that the workplace and the means of entering and leaving it are safe and without risks to health.

Employees also have duties under the OHS Act, which includes that they must:

  • Take reasonable care for their own health and safety.
  • Take reasonable care for the health and safety of persons who may be affected by the employee's acts or omissions at a workplace.
  • Co-operate with their employer with respect to any action taken by the employer to comply with a requirement imposed by or under the OHS Act.

The OHS Act gives HSRs a role in raising and resolving any OHS issues with their employer, and powers to take issues further if necessary. For more information see the guidance on powers for HSRs.