As the Cronulla ferry passed through the glistening waters of Port Hacking early Friday morning, school headmaster Tony Ibrahim was on board admiring the blue sea and sky, accompanied by a coveted supply of rapid antigen tests.
About 115 of his Cronulla High School students live nearly an hour’s drive south, nestled in the Royal National Park villages of Bundeena and Maianbar.
Rather than asking their parents to drive into town to pick up two weeks of rapid tests before the start of school on Tuesday, Mr Ibrahim and his deputy headteacher took 20 boxes of the tests and made the trip themselves through the water.
They were met at the Bundeena ferry dock by the school’s administrative assistant, Angela Clarke, herself a local resident, who was put in charge of the next stage of the distribution.
Ms Clarke brought a trestle table from home and camped outside the dock for two hours on Friday morning, handing out tests to parents and children. Then she drove the table and tests 10 minutes to Maianbar and set up her makeshift stand again, waiting outside the local cafe until 2 p.m.
“It’s absolutely beautiful. I have a nice shady spot with a great view,” she told the Herald from his refueling stand at noon. She will repeat the service on Monday, until all 460 tests are collected from families ready to start the school year on Tuesday.
“Some parents came with their kids, some drove, some came with their dogs,” Ms Clarke said. “I got good feedback from parents; they were very grateful that they didn’t have to drive to Cronulla High. They were just thrilled that we were able to facilitate it here.
So marked the latest chapter in the state government’s self-proclaimed ‘mammoth military operation’ to distribute more than 5million rapid tests to students across NSW this month as part of its back-to-school plan school.
When teachers and students return to class next week, they will be asked to take two rapid tests a week for the first four weeks of term as part of a surveillance testing program to detect cases of COVID-19 among students and staff.
NSW Premier Dominic Perrottet said all schools – including around 3,000 public, private and Catholic schools and 5,000 early childhood education centers – received their RAT supplies on Friday.
“It’s been a phenomenal effort… We always thought it would be a substantive challenge, not just in buying these tests [but] distribution across NSW. I would like to thank and congratulate everyone involved.
The test distribution operation involved dozens of corporate workers filling boxes at a Sydney warehouse over the weekend, with maintenance staff traveling hundreds of miles across the state to distribute them to regional centers and directors organizing the final delivery to families this week.
Mr Perrottet said the government’s plan was designed in consultation with the Department of Education and the NSW Teachers’ Federation about their concerns. “It should give parents and teachers confidence, a lot of confidence, that when we open schools on day one, term one, we are doing it in a way that is safe for you and your family,” he said.
“We ask parents to use these tests twice a week… It’s about having a flexible and common sense approach. If you can test your children before day one, do it, if you can’t, that’s okay.
An additional 3,400 school bus services and 200 train services will also be added to the state’s rush hour transportation network starting Monday next week, when school children resume public transportation.
NSW Transport will work directly with schools if dedicated services are affected by COVID-related timetable changes.
NSW Transport chief operating officer Howard Collins said that while staffing had been a challenge during the Omicron outbreak, he was confident the increase in services could be achieved.
He said between 2,500 and 3,000 cases of COVID had been recorded in Transport for NSW during the peak of the outbreak. “It has gone down as people have come back to work after self-isolating and recovering from COVID,” Mr Collins said.
Public transport will continue to have green physical distancing dots and face masks are mandatory for anyone over the age of 12. But no student will be turned away from services, even if it means physical distancing won’t be possible.
Transport Minister David Elliott has asked families who live near schools to consider walking or cycling instead of driving, while Metropolitan Roads Minister Natalie Ward has reminded drivers to be very careful in school zones.
With Tom Rabe
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