Australia needs national COVID-19 schools plan, experts sayFebruary 17, 2021
The authors of a new study into the impact of COVID-19 on students say Australia needs a national plan to ensure schools are the last places to close and the first to open in any further outbreaks.
The Victorian government surprised schools on Friday afternoon by announcing they would close until at least Wednesday, as part of a five-day lockdown designed to control a COVID-19 outbreak.
Masked-up students at Glen Eira College in September.Credit:Justin McManus
Schools will reopen across the state on Thursday after Premier Daniel Andrews announced on Wednesday morning that the statewide lockdown would end at midnight. Victorian has more than a million school students.
Professor Fiona Russell and Professor Sharon Goldfeld, the authors of a report into the impact of COVID-19 on Victorian early learning centres and schools, said snap lockdowns were “distressing” for everyone, particularly for Melbourne students who experienced almost two terms of remote learning last year.
The pair were part of a team from the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute that analysed COVID-19 cases in Victorian schools and early learning centres during Victoria’s first and second waves of coronavirus.
The report concluded that community transmission drove school transmission and schools should only be shut as a final resort, based on levels of community transmission and geographical locations.
It recommended a series of baseline mitigation measures – hygiene, physical distancing, enhanced cleaning and ventilation – that could be dialled up as community transmission rose.
For example, when there was relatively low levels of COVID-19 in the community, schools would introduce masks for staff and secondary school students, physical distancing would be increased and there would be no singing, indoor sports and wind instruments.
If community transmission increased further, 50 per cent of students in years 7 to10 would attend school while the other half learnt from home.
Finally, school closures would be considered, the report said.
Professor Russell, a paediatrician and infectious diseases epidemiologist, said the more infectious British and South African strains of COVID-19 made the report’s mitigation recommendations – which have yet to be enacted in Victoria or the rest of Australia – more relevant.
“It’s important that schools know exactly what to do when, and they whip out their plan and implement it,” she said.
“And there needs to be a national plan that states schools are prioritised.”
Professor Goldfeld, a developmental paediatrician and public health physician who co-authored the research, said that while nobody was suggesting that schools should never be shut due to coronavirus, there was not a national approach to reducing the frequency of system-wide school shutdowns.
“Now is a good opportunity to say we value kids and their education,” she said.
The most recent statement by the expert medical panel advising national cabinet on the pandemic said schools remained “safe places”.
“The benefits and risks of school closures should be carefully weighed,” said the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee this month.
“This includes the impact on educational, social, health and well being outcomes, especially for disadvantaged students.”
Victoria came under criticism from federal government ministers, including then education minister Dan Tehan, last year for closing schools to all but the children of essential workers during its months-long lockdowns.
The US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention recommends specific strategies based on the level of community transmission, using a traffic light approach in order to keep schools open as long as possible.
Victorian Education Department deputy secretary David Howes said in January that if community transmission re-emerged, the community could have faith that schools would cope because last year’s process of rapid school closure, contact tracing and deep cleaning had worked well.
“We didn’t have significant outbreaks in schools; rates of transmission were very low, so we imagine that we would follow the same process, but as always we would follow the advice of the health authority,” he said.
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