The principal of an Islamic school at the centre of Melbourne’s second horror coronavirus outbreak has issued a desperate plea in the wake of online racist attacks.
Al-Taqwa College in the city’s western outskirts is linked to one of Australia’s biggest outbreaks of the pandemic with 185 cases.
Founder and principal Omar Hallak says repeated references to the college as the ‘Al-Taqwa cluster’ by Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews, government officials and the media have been detrimental to the school’s reputation and sparked online attacks from racist trolls.
He claims very few cases linked to the cluster were transmitted inside school grounds.
‘Sadly, some people with extreme views have sent ugly messages to the college and posted on social media. Our families see these things and it gives them pain,’ Mr Hallak told the Age.
‘When there are government statements and media reporting of a cluster at Al-Taqwa College, it gives the false impression that all the cases in the cluster were contracted on-site. That is simply untrue and needlessly feeds prejudices where they exist.’
A teacher at the school was first diagnosed with COVID-19 on June 27.
Mr Hallak publicly assured at the time the college had been taking every precaution with daily temperature checks for all staff, students and school visitors where anyone presenting even minor symptoms was turned away.
In just over a week, an outbreak linked to the college grew to more than 100 cases as all 300 staff and 2,000 students were ordered to self-isolate.
The school has since been slammed by local GP Dr Hanna El-Khoury, who claimed not enough was done as the outbreak spread.
He claimed some cases from the college were traced to a senior school teacher who taught while suffering cold and flu symptoms.
Victorian Chief Health Officer Professor Brett Sutton told reporters at the time it was possible some infections could have occurred before authorities knew of the first case at the school.
‘They tend to have more transmission that’s akin to adults, if they’re not doing physical distancing appropriately, so that’s been a big cluster in terms of schools,’ he told reporters on July 6.
Mr Hallak has hit back at the claims, insisting that ‘many, if not most infections’ linked to the college were contracted in the school holidays and that grade six teacher first infected had ‘limited’ interactions with senior college staff.
He added some students live in the virus-riddled North Melbourne and Flemington housing commission towers linked to more than 300 cases.
He also said that no one in the Victorian government has criticised the college regarding its COVID-19 precautions and protocols.
There has been no classroom learning at the school since the end of term two and aren’t expected to resume until October at the earliest.
Policy advisor Terry Barnes has also been helping also Al-Taqwa College respond to the virus crisis.
Mr Hallak raised concerns about the racism targeting the college during a video conference with local MPs last week, where minister Ros Spence reiterated the government’s support for the school.
‘Sadly, Principal Hallak told us that their community is experiencing an increase in Islamophobic and racist messages,’ Ms Spence wrote afterwards.
‘I assured Principal Hallak, as I do to all Victorians, that racism and discrimination have no place in Victoria.
‘We need to stay united against any forms of prejudice during these challenging times, and at all times. Coronavirus does not discriminate.’