‘Who speaks for the children?’: Outbreak school principal insists face-to-face is best
13th September 2021

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The principal of the small, alternative Fitzroy Community School has remained consistent throughout.

When the Victorian and federal governments found themselves in a tug-of-war in term two last year over home schooling, Tim Berryman was the first to say he would open up to students. “There is no evidence,” he said in April 2020, “to suggest that children being at school contributes to this pandemic at all.”

Tim Berryman, principal of the Fitzroy Community School. Credit:Justin McManus

On Monday, the independent primary school Mr Berryman runs in North Fitzroy was engulfed in a COVID-19 outbreak. Twenty-nine students and staff, including Mr Berryman’s son, have contracted the virus, and those who believe the school should never have been allowed to stay open are on the warpath.

But Mr Berryman remains adamant. He said until his school was forced to close by health authorities last week that it was in his students’ interests that it continued to teach them in person.

“What I’ve found frustrating and quite depressing is that in this whole discussion the children and their hopes and their aspirations have just been not part of it,” Mr Berryman told The Age on Monday.

“We’ve got different parts of government [speaking] and the aged-care sector has been very well heard – and they have a very legitimate voice. But who’s speaking for mental health, and who’s speaking for the children? Those voices have just been lost. And that’s really sad for me because the children are hurting.”

Since the latest lockdown began in August, the school has continued teaching children of both essential workers and those considered vulnerable on site, as have all Victorian schools. But while 4 per cent of students on average are attending the state’s public schools, Fitzroy Community School has had more than 50 per cent on site. Families whose children attend the school but who are critical of Mr Berryman say on some days as many as 81 children are in the three terrace houses that make up the school, and that masks are rarely if ever worn.

Mr Berryman insists mask rules are followed, but he says teachers are entitled not to wear one while supervising children. Asked how things were since the outbreak, he says, “the kids are all fine. A couple are a bit fluey. Most of them, if you weren’t going to test for something, you would have never known anything”.

Health authorities closed the school last Thursday and designated it a tier-one exposure site. There are 82 primary close contacts in isolation. They are investigating the circumstances behind the outbreak and will check what COVIDSafe measures were in place and whether the Chief Health Officer’s directions were being followed.

Parents critical of Mr Berryman said he had taken a generous interpretation of those directions. On August 5 Mr Berryman emailed parents to say the school would remain open for a wide variety of children, including those from “families struggling with physical health and/or mental health challenges”. By last week, this had grown to at least 60 children turning up daily.

Health Minister Martin Foley on Monday said it was “far too early” to consider whether the school could be fined, but that the independent school had a history of “sailing pretty close” to the line.

Mr Berryman said he had not flouted state health rules but rather that children attending classes in person need to be there. “We have not encouraged anyone to come. But we have also not suggested that anyone do not come,” he said.

Mr Berryman’s parents started the school in 1976, and he has described himself as worrying about the constant erosion of freedom. In 2018, he told The Age parents had to be brave and give their children more liberty.

On Monday, he stood by his argument that allowing children to attend school caused less harm than excluding them. “The government has never shown a cost-benefit analysis of school closures,” he said. “We haven’t closed everybody’s school because somebody got the flu. Those data points are so crucial because people are so anxious about this, but the evidence doesn’t back it up.”

The risk of COVID-19 was one-tenth the risk of dying on the roads, he said.

“So the most dangerous part of your child’s day is getting into school, not actually COVID.”

The school, opposite the old Fitzroy football ground, charges parents $18,000 a year in fees (Geelong Grammar’s Toorak campus primary school, by comparison, charges $24,000 to $30,000 a year.) It has an Index of Community Socio-educational Advantage score higher than Scotch College or Melbourne Girls Grammar – a ranking that puts its students in the top 1 per cent for socio-educational advantage in Australia.

MySchool data showed in 2019 it received $652,475 in federal funding and $72,570 from the state last year. It paid $3.6 million last year to buy the Dan O’Connell pub in Carlton, where it will move one of its primary school campuses so that it can turn its Thornbury campus into a high school for years seven and eight.

The school’s non-conforming stance on closing during Melbourne’s first wave last year – branded “reckless” at the time by Education Minister James Merlino – drew support from then federal education minister Dan Tehan. “I think he’s made a considered judgment to keep his school open,” Mr Tehan said.

Mr Berryman has not tested positive – yet. He describes himself as an “ardent pro-vaxxer” but won’t say if he is vaccinated.

“I don’t think it’s relevant for any individual person to answer that one. I don’t want to be pushing people either way.”

Parents whose children are enrolled at the school but learning remotely spoke to The Age on condition of anonymity, saying it would be untenable for their children to remain if their names were used. They said the actions of the school in continuing classes for so long had been irresponsible.

One person said he and others had complained to Yarra Council, the health department and police.

“We’ve all been watching the goings-on in disbelief. The principal has stood outside the school for drop-off and pick-up times holding a cuppa, not wearing a mask.”

School founder Faye Berryman reads a statement on Monday morning.Credit:Eddie Jim

Another neighbour said the parents who are dropping off children “are not essential workers. They are also not from low socio-economic backgrounds, and they are not uneducated. They are the children of barristers, artists, a television drama director, lawyers, business executives”.

School founder Faye Berryman, Mr Berryman’s mother, read a statement over the phone from the school window on Monday, saying it had the best interests of children at heart.

“We are not lunatic fringe, we are pretty conservative, deeply thinking people.”

“Our parents were given the choice to be at school or online, with no pressure either way,” she said. “We are not lunatic fringe, we are pretty conservative, deeply thinking people.”

Outspoken Yarra councillor Stephen Jolly said he was angered by what’s happened at the school.

“This shows that the sort of classism I hear all the time – people say ‘Oh it’s the people in the north-west of Melbourne or whatever spreading COVID’. That sort of classism is just bullshit,” says Cr Jolly.

“Right across the road from Edinburgh Gardens, we’ve got people who live in heritage homes sending their kids to this school and walking around with this New Age nonsense that they’re immune. The vast amount of people are doing the right thing, and it’s a tragedy this school has done the wrong thing.”

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