Relocation of schools and children’s services

Latrobe City Council and the Department of Education and Early Childhood Development (DEECD) share responsibility for schools and children’s services located in Morwell. The Council and DEECD took different approaches to the management of schools and children’s services in the area during the Hazelwood mine fire.

At community consultations, the Board heard that the community felt primary schools were not provided with adequate information about the health risks of the fire, and that schools were left to make their own decisions about relocation.162

LATROBE CITY COUNCIL

Latrobe City Council is responsible for an early childhood centre (which is a combined centre with Carinya Early Learning Centre), a maternal child health centre and two preschools in Morwell.163

On 9 February 2014, the Council made a decision to close all preschools and maternal and child health centres in the Council area for the following day. The Carinya Early Learning Centre was also closed because it comprises both a preschool and an early learning centre. The primary reason for the closure of preschools and maternal and child health centres was access difficulties due to road closures as a result of bushfires in the area.164

Maryvale Crescent Preschool is located very close to the Hazelwood mine and did not reopen until after the mine fire was declared safe.165 Mr Mitchell told the Board that due to its location and the impact of the smoke and ash, the Council took the view that it was ‘completely untenable to have children and staff within that centre.’166 After a period of closure on, 24 February 2014 the centre was relocated to Moe.167

All services reopened on 11 February 2014 (except for the Maryvale Crescent Preschool). Mr Mitchell told the Board that services were reopened with an indoor program, however as the fire went on it became obvious that there was going to be sustained smoke and adverse conditions.168

On 26 February 2014, the Council decided to close all preschools in Morwell, as well as the Carinya Early Learning Centre. Mr Mitchell informed the Board that the decision was made because children were frustrated at remaining inside and some were affected by smoke filtering through the doors and vents.169 He further stated: ‘The question of staff was also an issue, managing children indoors all day was a challenge for the staff, and then there was also the other principle about respite for both children and our teachers.’170

All preschools, early learning centres and maternal and child health centres resumed normal operations on 24 March 2014.171

DEPARTMENT OF EDUCATION AND EARLY CHILDHOOD DEVELOPMENT

DEECD Emergency Management Division provides policy and operational direction for all government schools and children’s services in respect of emergency management. In addition, pursuant to a Memorandum of Understanding with the Catholic Education Commission of Victoria, Independent Schools Victoria and the Municipal Association of Victoria, DEECD has responsibility and authority as the lead agency for overall coordination of education services in an emergency.172

In Morwell there are nine children’s services, five government schools, two Catholic schools, one independent school and one TAFE. Three of the schools (Commercial Road Primary School, Sacred Heart Primary School and Berry Street School) and two children’s services (Maryvale Crescent Kindergarten and Goodstart Early Learning Centre) are located south of Commercial Road Morwell and within 0.8 and 1.3 kilometres of the mine.173

Mr Nicholas Pole, Deputy Secretary of the Regional Services Group at DEECD noted in his statement to the Board that DEECD relied on the advice of Dr Lester regarding how the impact of smoke on child/student and staff health should be minimised.174 Mr Pole stated that DEECD was looking to Dr Lester for qualitative analysis of any air quality data.175

At the State Emergency Management Team meeting on 12 February 2014, DEECD raised the issue of air quality and the potential impact on schools and children’s services close to the mine.176 Mr Pole told the Board that from an early stage, DEECD was concerned about the quality of air in the facilities.177

By 13 February 2014, Mr Pole was aware that school principals in Morwell were frustrated about the lack of clear advice on air quality issues:178

…frustration in regard to, firstly, the impact of that on the operation of the schools. So in effect, schools were keeping kids inside… rainy day arrangements, so we have kids inside in classrooms through the entire day… and in addition concern or a lack of knowledge and information about the potential health impacts of the smoke.179

Mr Pole stated that the advice being given did not reduce the level of frustration and therefore DEECD planned to commence air monitoring at schools.180

On 18 February 2014, DEECD sought advice from Dr Lester to assist it to determine whether it should consider relocation and the closure of schools and children’s services.181 DEECD reported to Dr Lester that Goodstart Early Learning Centre had informed it of children exhibiting hyperactivity, headaches, flushed faces and longer sleep times.182 Dr Lester responded via email:

…on the basis that some children from one of your early learning facilities have reported symptoms which would be consistent with smoke exposure, and the fact that our recommendation has been for the past couple of days for vulnerable people to spend time out of the smoke if possible, we would advise that your facilities south of Commercial Rd (ie nearest to the time [sic]) are closed and/or have provision for temporary relocation of the children out of the smoke.183

Mr Pole told the Board that he understood Dr Lester’s advice to mean that the symptoms reported by the school were consistent with carbon monoxide exposure.184

On 18 February 2014, DEECD commenced planning of possible relocation of schools and children’s services.185

The same day DEECD also resolved to undertake air monitoring at all schools and children’s services in Morwell. Monitoring was conducted in 21 facilities with hand-held devices that measured carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide and PM10.186 Mr Pole said that the air monitoring devices ‘were to assist principals in their decisions about having children go outside classrooms and to ventilate classrooms and classroom spaces.’187

The results of the air monitoring provided to the Board indicate that for the majority of the continuous monitoring recordings, the readings were considered low risk; however there were some occasions where the level of PM10 recorded was in the medium risk category, and on one occasion (at Morwell Primary School on 27 February 2014), the readings were in the high risk category.188

On 19 February 2014, DEECD advised Mr Lapsley of its decision to temporarily relocate schools and early childhood facilities located south of Commercial Road.189 Mr Pole told the Board that there was a concern that the community may see the relocation of the schools as a mixed message, as the community was being told that unless you were in a vulnerable group it was safe to stay in Morwell.190 By 19 February 2014, Goodstart Early Learning Centre and Dala Lidj-Woolum Bellum Kindergarten had closed pending relocation.191

On 20 February 2014, Commercial Road Primary School and Sacred Heart Primary School (both located south of Commercial Road) were relocated. A third school located south of Commercial Road (Berry Street School) had been closed since 13 February 2014. By 27 February 2014, four other children’s services in Morwell (all north of Commercial Road) had closed or announced their intention to close, pending the identification of appropriate accommodation.192

Schools that were not relocated were encouraged to undertake respite activities at locations with better air quality.193 Figure 4.60 shows the location of schools and early learning centres in Morwell on 4 March 2014, and whether they had been relocated, closed or remained open.

Mr Pole confirmed that DEECD’s approach was to use Commercial Road as a dividing line and to provide different advice to facilities south of Commercial Road and north of Commercial Road. Latrobe City Council did not distinguish between facilities located on either side of Commercial Road.194

Figure 4.60 Location and status of schools and early learning centres, Morwell, 4 March 2014195

8101_Figure 4.60 Locat_opt

By the start of Term 2 on 22 April 2014, all schools and children’s services in Morwell had been cleaned and staff and students had returned.196