Faikha Schroeder was enjoying the first day of school holidays when she received a text message — one of her teaching colleagues at Al-Taqwa College, in Melbourne’s outer west, had tested positive for COVID-19.
- The Al-Taqwa College cluster is the largest in Victoria, with 113 cases
- The health department previously linked the outbreak to separate clusters in Sunshine West and Truganina
- Principal Omar Hallak said staff “tried our utmost” to prevent an outbreak, including spending $100,000 on additional cleaning and hygiene measures
That was on June 27. On July 1 came another message from the school — all teachers had to be tested.
Ms Schroeder, a secondary teacher, tested negative the first time but has since been asked to take a second test and is awaiting the results.
She still doesn’t know which of her colleagues tested positive, or the source of the cluster, which today grew by 6 to reach 113 cases, making it the largest outbreak in Victoria.
But she confirmed to the ABC that children who live in locked-down public housing blocks in Melbourne’s inner-north-west attended the school, raising the possibility that the college cluster resulted in infections in the nine towers.
“We run a school bus from that area,” she said, adding that it was common for children to travel large distances to the school.
The health department has previously linked the outbreak at Al-Taqwa to separate clusters in Sunshine West and Truganina.
The first cases at the school appeared around the same time as community transmission began to spike across Melbourne.
But it remains unclear how one teacher who became infected at the end of term could be responsible for a cluster which spread to more than 100 people.
Staff were vigilant, teacher says
Al-Taqwa College principal, Omar Hallak, warned parents and students back in April about the perils of not taking the virus seriously, and implored them to listen to official messaging.
“I would ask all teachers please accept the position of our Government and protect your family and do not send them outside,” he said on the eve of the term one school holidays.
“That is very important to follow the direction of Government and department.”
When school reopened after term one, Ms Schroeder was vigilant, but not troubled.
“I was trying to follow protocols, hand-cleaning and so on,” she said.
“I was very careful interacting with the students, because I knew that it was more a risk of me transmitting it to them, than them transmitting to me.”
It was not until July 5 — more than a week after the first case was recorded — that Al-Taqwa College commented publicly about the outbreak.
There had already been 59 cases linked to the school.
“We regret to report that a number of our staff and students have tested positive for COVID-19,” Mr Hallak said in a statement.
“All staff and students have been asked to get tested immediately and have been placed in quarantine while DHHS [Department of Health and Human Services] continues their tracing and the College undergoes a deep clean.
“We have taken additional measures since the outbreak, including spending over $100,000 on additional cleaning and hygiene measures, involving an organisation approved by DHHS.
“However, unfortunately, this is out of our hands as it is with quite a few other schools around Victoria, around the nation and around the world, which is quite saddening.”
A growing student population
According to the school’s website, Al-Taqwa College was founded by Mr Hallak in 1986 after he realised the importance of educating young children in an Islamic environment.
He bought 50 acres of land in what was then the sparsely populated outskirts of Melbourne and started the school with 25 students in demountable buildings.
In the following three decades, the population of the school swelled to about 2,200 students, as the number of people living in the region quadrupled to more than 200,000.
In 2001, Mr Hallak’s son Mohammad was appointed vice-principal and business manager.
“Al-Taqwa College, the main campus of our business entity, has an annual turnover of more than AU$31 million dollars, employs over 300 staff and provides quality education to over 2,200 students,” Mohammad Hallak posted on his LinkedIn profile in 2017.
The school also has a campus which operates as a registered training organisation, a campus in Indonesia and a school camp in Bairnsdale, East Gippsland.
Soon after it posted the statement about the outbreak on its Facebook page, the school was flooded with comments; some criticised them for failing to address previous concerns raised by parents about hygiene at the school, which the school acknowledged as “the toilet issue”, while others praised the college for doing what it could to stop the outbreak.
Al-Taqwa parent informed via WhatsApp
Habeeb Habeeb lives near the school with his wife and six children, four of whom are students of the college.
After the school term ended, his wife started hearing through a group chat with parents on WhatsApp that there had been a case linked to the school.
Soon it became clear that most other families he knew through the school were being tested.
But when he went with his wife and children for a test last week, he said they were turned away because of a two-hour delay. They are booked in for a test on Friday.
“Many of them [our friends] have been tested and have been negative, so that’s making us not worry too much,” he told the ABC.
He has no concerns about how the school handled the outbreak. He has a daughter in grade one, a son in grade three and twin boys in grade five at Al-Taqwa.
“We went, me and my wife, and they were cleaning everything, checking temperatures,” he said.
“It’s unfortunately coming from a source outside … and passing on to the teacher.”
Mohammad Hallak did not respond to requests for comment from the ABC, and calls to the school went unanswered.
Unlikely cluster linked to Eid celebrations
Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton said on Monday that it would be almost impossible to identify the source of the public housing towers cluster, meaning that it too could be linked to the college.
“Sometimes the first case that’s notified to us is not the first case in an outbreak,” Mr Sutton said.
“Sometimes the first person who develops symptoms is not the first person who’s been exposed. So it is tricky in that regard.”
Despite the school’s Muslim population, it appears unlikely the cluster is linked to Eid celebrations, which occurred on May 24 — more than a month before the first case emerged.
“Any connection to Eid and by implication the Muslim community is grossly unfair,” the Islamic Council of Victoria said in a statement last month, “and represents barely concealed Islamophobia at a time when it is more important than ever to remain united in our fight against this pandemic”.
Students keen to return to class
Wyndham City councillor Intaj Khan, who represents the council ward where the school is based, and whose children previously attended the college, said he had not heard any concerns from constituents about how the cluster was handled.
But he said it was clear that more could have been done to inform people from non-English speaking backgrounds about the risks.
“Wyndham is quite a multicultural community and the State Government should have done more in languages other than English,” he said.
Wyndham now has 133 active cases, the second most of any local government area in the state.
Mr Habeeb said he would not hesitate to send his four children back to Al-Taqwa.
His youngest son at the school is already clamouring to return, despite being given an extra week of holidays because of the explosion in cases across Melbourne.
“He says he understands what has happened but he wants to go back.”