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COVID-19 is a race and our children are left at the starting line

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Natalie Beak (centre) is campaigning for better school conditions during the pandemic for children including her son, Archie (Photo by Brenda Cunningham-Lewis)

Better measures need to be taken to protect our children from the effects of COVID-19 after the Government has largely ignored their safety, writes Natalie Beak.

HALF OF ALL COVID-19 cases are currently in children and young people with the vast majority of transmission occurring in schools. Despite the prevailing view that COVID-19 is a mild disease in children, 85 Australian children have been admitted into ICU this year, suffering from the infectious Delta strain. Nineteen children admitted to ICU are under nine years of age. According to the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), COVID-19 is now one of the top ten causes of death amongst children in the U.S.

Why, then, are our youngest children still waiting to receive protection?

As a parent of both a primary and pre-school aged child, sending them to school each day is an anxiety-inducing process. The Department of Education and Training’s (DET)failure to set a mask mandate means my year one child is one of only two in his class wearing a mask. For him, it means helping to protect his best friend and mask buddy, who has an immunocompromised sibling.

The DET conceded social distancing is difficult for young children, but with a vaccination rate of one per class (the teacher) and woefully inadequate levels of mask-wearing, natural ventilation in the form of opened windows is the only classroom measure they have enacted. Again, it has been up to my seven-year-old to educate his peers about the risk of airborne transmission. He proudly took our CO2 monitor in for show and tell — a covert operation where I was able to download classroom CO2 levels from the day via an app on my phone.

Real-time air quality monitoring is affordable and a crucial mitigation measure supported by the CDC in the USA as well as the ECDC across Europe. Closer to home, OzSAGE, a multi-disciplinary network of Australian experts, has published a 22-page research paper outlining measures to protect children returning to school, which includes CO2 monitoring, HEPA filtration, mask mandates and the option of flexible home learning programs.

My concerns as a parent are not felt in isolation. In the last few weeks, hundreds of parents, teachers and community members have gathered online. The association, COVID Safe Schools, advocates for maximum protections against COVID-19 transmission in schools and other educational settings.

Our current focus is on federal action in the form of prioritised vaccination for children aged 5-11 years and a nation-wide COVID Safe Schools program that provides funding for CO2 monitoring in every room of every Australian school to measure the indoor aerosol transmission risk and to provide HEPA filtration when existing natural ventilation is insufficient or cannot be maintained.

Preventing an illness is far better than treating it. Our leaders know this all too well with vaccination being the cornerstone of our pandemic exit strategy. Last week, the FDA approved the Pfizer vaccine for children aged 5–11 and U.S. President Biden has guaranteed a jab for every eligible child in America after securing an order of paediatric doses on 14 October. Canada announced their order on 29 October and Israel is expecting their shipment to arrive on 15 November. And yet, Australian children are still waiting.

Approval by the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) and the Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation (ATAGI) could be fast-tracked, but Health Minister Greg Hunt is still to announce if Australia has ordered paediatric doses, or when we can expect delivery.

Five weeks of term remain this year as the virus continues to spread through schools. I am not a health expert, but the information is readily available to show we can prevent this from happening.

As a parent, I want action to ensure our children are given the best chance of completing their school year in a safe environment. As a society, we should all be asking why the youngest members of our community are not offered comprehensive protections such as those that members of the NSW Parliament deemed important enough for themselves, with the upper house ventilation system being upgraded to ensure eight exchanges of fresh air every hour.

As OzSAGE’s media release makes clear:

‘We still do not know enough about the long-term risks posed by COVID-19 to children, but given what is currently known and based on the precautionary principle, we should do what we can to protect children.’

Five weeks is time enough to see this risky experiment play out.

Natalie Beak is the Acting President of COVID Safe Schools and a parent of two young children.

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