Managing COVID-19 risks: Education

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

Directions and industry requirements are regularly updated

This guidance is correct as at time of publication, however, Victorian Chief Health Officer (CHO) Directions and industry requirements are regularly updated. Readers of this guidance need to check the latest Victorian CHO Directions for applicability.

Restrictions apply across Victoria

Depending on your industry your workplace may:

  • be required to close temporarily for on-site work
  • remain open for on-site work with a completed COVIDSafe Plan in place
  • be subject to restricted operations or industry specific obligations

It is mandatory for every Victorian business with on-site operations to have a COVIDSafe Plan.

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 Directions issued by the Victorian Chief Health Officer (CHO).

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 CHO Directions does not necessarily mean you have complied with all of your duties under the OHS Act and OHS Regulations.

You must follow any health directions 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.

COVID-19 and education environments

A COVID-19 infection can cause mild to severe respiratory illness.

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

Current research suggests that COVID-19 spreads through:

  • droplets when an infected person coughs, sneezes, talks or sings – these can enter your eyes, nose or mouth when you are in close contact
  • touching objects or surfaces (such as door handles) contaminated with droplets
  • airborne aerosols generated by actions like coughing, sneezing, talking or singing – these can stay in the air for some time, especially in indoor spaces with poor ventilation

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 includes preventing risks to health, including psychological health, and safety 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 eliminate or 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 do not attend the workplace

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, directions from the Victorian Chief Health Officer may also require employers to take specific response actions.

Notifiable incidents and COVID-19

From 28 July 2020 new temporary regulations under the OHS Act specify when employers and self-employed persons must notify WorkSafe of a confirmed diagnosis of COVID-19 in the workplace. For more information see the guidance Notifiable incidents involving COVID-19.

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:

  • staff, children, students, attending services (such as Specialist Service Officers or nurses) or visitors who are unwell attending the premises
  • 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) is undertaking a centralised risk assessment process for education environments. When implementing advice issued by DET in relation to risk assessments, employers need to consider the risk assessment to ensure it is appropriate for the circumstances particular to their workplace, and to identify whether this introduces any additional risks.

DET's Safety Management Plan has been developed for Victorian government schools, and may also be useful as a guide for other education settings, including in the private and independent sectors.

Controlling risks

Face masks in workplaces

Directions from the Victorian CHO about face masks are in place across Victoria. For more information see the guidance Managing COVID-19 risks: Face masks in workplaces.

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.

Workplace screening

One of the most important actions that can be taken to reduce the risk of transmission of COVID-19 is to ensure that unwell adults and children do not attend the premises.

Employers should clearly communicate to employees, adults, children and other visitors that no one should attend the premises if they:

  • have any symptoms of COVID-19
  • are subject to any health directions (such as isolation, quarantine or in relation to travel)
  • have been in contact with any confirmed cases of COVID-19
  • are awaiting the results of a test for COVID-19

Physical distancing, hygiene and other controls

Physical distancing, hand hygiene, cough and sneeze etiquette and environmental 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 hygiene and environmental cleaning, becomes even more important.

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.