In schools, the Delta strain of COVID-19 is five times more transmissible than earlier variants, according to a study that demonstrates the importance of preventative measures as schools reopen.
Students in NSW, Victoria and the ACT have now begun their return to school with various health and safety measures in place. "The chance of transmission in schools is quite high because it's confined, and you have a group of people together at all times," Monash University infectious diseases expert Dr Vinod Balasubramaniam said.
Thankfully, we now have the weapons to fight against COVID in schools. The most important is vaccination, followed by a combination of social distancing, ventilation and good hygiene practices.
As each state will follow its own roadmap, below are the key facts about returning to school. In all jurisdictions, vaccination is critical, and masks are required for adults and in high schools. "If we manage to vaccinate those who are eligible, they can be an umbrella for the ones who can't be vaccinated," Balasubramaniam said. "That works."
In low-risk regional LGAs in NSW, schools have been open since mid-September. For the rest of regional NSW not under stay-at-home rules, all students returned to school on October 11. Regional LGAs under stay at home rules follow the same edicts as Greater Sydney, with Kindergarten, Year 1 and Year 12 returning on the 18th and all students on the 25th.
In NSW, all teachers must be fully vaccinated to return to school. In a press conference on October 7, NSW Education Minister Sarah Mitchell said that as of October 6, 45,000 teachers were fully vaccinated out of a total workforce of roughly 90,000.
NSW Teachers Federation senior vice president Amber Flohm said some teachers would not be vaccinated when schools returned, particularly in regional areas where vaccines have been harder to access. "Meeting a deadline that continues to move may well provide some challenges for some parts of the state," Flohm said.
The mandated deadline would mean that in some cases, students may be taught online while at school or by a different teacher if their teacher has not had their second vaccination.
To ensure adequate ventilation, the NSW Department of Education began an audit in September of all classrooms. The audit was released on October 7, and individual, school-level reports were given to principals. The audit has primarily recommended that windows remain open in classrooms to ensure ventilation. "That means the measures for primary schools are even more critical, as they do not have the vaccination available to them or mandatory mask-wearing," Flohm said.
As of October 11, all students in regional Victoria in Prep, Grades 1 and 2 and Years 11 and 12 were back at school, with other grades staggered across the week. From October 22, all students in regional Victoria will return to face-to-face learning five days a week.
In metropolitan Melbourne, the return is delayed slightly, with Year 12 now back at school fulltime and Prep and Grades 1 and 2 back at school on some days. Other grades will return on certain days from October 22. By November 5, all students in Melbourne will be back at school.
The timetable aims to limit infections between year groups as the virus remains in the community. Branch president of the Australian Education Union Victoria Meredith Peace said that while the timetable might be tricky for teachers, students, and their parents, face-to-face contact would be invaluable. "Those connections with their school, teachers and with friends are going to be really important for students to adjust back into a structured school environment."
The Victorian government set October 18 as the deadline for all teachers to have had their first jab to return to school, in line with other authorised workers. All teachers will have to be vaccinated by November 26. "We're confident that the majority of our members are either vaccinated or in the process of doing that," Peace said.
In September, the Victorian government announced it would purchase 51,000 air purifiers to improve ventilation in schools. The government would also fund shade cloths to allow classes to be taught outside. Audits and ventilation assessments will guide teachers and staff about the best ventilation method in their schools.
As of October 18, Years 11 and 12 at ACT schools were back in the classroom. Kindergarten, Years 1, 2, 6, 9 and 10 will return from October 25 with all students back to school by November 1.
Vaccines are mandated for primary schools and specialist education teachers, but not for most high school teachers. The ACT has the highest vaccination rate of any jurisdiction in Australia, with over 95 per cent of people aged 16 and above with at least one dose. The ACT has funded CO2 monitors for schools so that outdoor air can be circulated indoors at higher air density levels. All schools have plans in place to increase air circulation.
Living with COVID
Unlike previous returns to school after a period of learning from home, this time, students and staff are returning to face-to-face instruction while COVID continues to circulate in the community. This means that it is highly likely that in all jurisdictions, positive cases, whether students or staff, will attend school.
To mitigate this risk, each school will have its own plans for social distancing, including student cohorts by class and year group to minimise contact and ensure that only a portion of the school may need to isolate when a case does arise.
"Rather than shutting the whole school down, they can identify the area and the group of people involved in any positive case and have them isolate but enable the rest of the school to continue. That will be positive, but it will be challenging," Peace said.
The teachers' representatives said students and staff needed to adhere to these plans to ensure that face-to-face learning could continue wherever possible. "It is very difficult to teach online and try and replicate what you do face-to-face," Flohm said.