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COVID safety in schools is woefully inadequate

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The Coalition must mandate enforceable safety measures for improving ventilation in schools, as key to controlling COVID-19, writes Karen Armstrong.

FOR PARENTS, the start of the school year is often bittersweet. There is a wave of relief at having the kids off their hands and a combination of hope and concern about their children's prospects of achieving their best in the academic and social sphere. But this year, in the shadow of COVID-19, there is an added dimension — fear and anxiety as to whether they are making the right decision in sending their kids off to school at all.  

Parents are rightly concerned. There is a lot to weigh up. There is the risk of physical harm to their children against the potential psychological and educational consequences of not sending them, as well as the possibility their child could catch COVID and infect a member of the family or community.   

Right now, NSW is fortunate to have a low rate of community transmission. But we have been perilously close to a galloping rate three times. Our luck won’t necessarily continue, especially given that the highly contagious B117 strain now threatens our quarantine system.  

The Prime Minister’s statement, made last April, that characterises schools as safe, has misled a lot of people. Many parents, teachers and education authorities believe now, as they did then, that it’s true. If only it were.

A lot more is known about COVID than was known back then and the science shows that schools are not inherently safe. While we would all like them to be, wishful thinking won’t get us there. Action will. Education authorities need to get some strategies in place if they want schools to remain safe and operational. It’s time public safety was prioritised over public relations. 

Existing guidelines for COVID safety in schools are tokenistic at best. There is some hand sanitising and desk wiping taking place, but no social distancing, no masks and woefully inadequate measures in place regarding ventilation. Social distancing was always going to be difficult in schools. Classrooms were not built with infection control in mind. There can be no square metre rule; they simply aren’t big enough.  

But there are things that can be done — and for virtually no cost.  International experts in disease control are now saying that COVID is aerosolised, meaning ventilation is a key to preventing transmission. 

It needs to be made mandatory for windows to be kept open — rain, hail or shine. Studies of CO2 levels – a useful proxy for the concentration of tiny COVID droplets that remain suspended in the air – show that keeping windows open keeps the concentration of COVID particles down to a safe level. 

Yes, it will be uncomfortable in the heat of summer, when it will be tempting to shut the windows and pump up the air conditioning. But it will be substantially safer to tolerate the heat. Winter days might be miserable, but no one in Australia will suffer hypothermia because windows were left open. School leaders should prioritise safety ahead of adherence to uniform and allow students to wear warm clothing instead of regular uniform during the winter months. 

Of course, there are plenty of people in school leadership who would be mortified at the prospect of this. They are adamant that schools continue to run "business as usual". Some, because they refuse to accept that COVID poses any sort of risk to children; others because they subscribe to the view that “it can’t happen here”.   

The rapidly accelerating second wave in Melbourne put paid to the latter notion, which was always specious in light of international experience. And as for the theory that kids don’t get it or spread it, that has been comprehensively debunked. Fortunately, most children who do contract COVID don’t appear to suffer severe complications or death. But the long-term effect on children is unknown. And even if we had an iron-clad guarantee that COVID won’t affect kids, there is now an abundance of evidence showing that they do catch it and spread it at much the same rate as adults.   

Some school leaders believe that COVID is a threat, but feel they need to prioritise the mental health of students. They argue that keeping schools running as per usual is reassuring for students. At best, this is misguided. No one’s sense of wellbeing is enhanced when their physical health is imperilled. Other school leaders cynically cite psychological wellbeing as an excuse to maintain the status quo.   

High school students should be required to wear masks when they are in crowded corridors, locker areas and when leaving and entering classrooms. I have heard principals argue against mask-use in schools on the basis that they won’t be able to enforce it. As every teacher knows, principals have had less incentive but little trouble in enforcing regulation socks, ties and skirt lengths.   

I believe all large gatherings, including sports carnivals, assemblies and parent-teacher evenings need to cease immediately. So does interschool sport. Many schools are still running these events and have been looking for loopholes in the existing guidelines, inadequate as they are. 

I have heard that teaching staff who have raised safety concerns in schools have experienced bullying and gaslighting.This needs to stop. The Coalition needs to mandate enforceable safety measures which recognise the role of airborne transmission. Doctors, scientists and occupational hygienists are demanding action on this. The teaching unions need to insist upon it as a condition of teachers continuing to work. And teachers need to insist that their unions insist upon it.

Work Health and Safety(WHS) legislation exists for a reason and needs to be invoked. Teachers may wish to contact their union and make their voices heard; likewise, parents may wish to contact their child’s school principal and state their expectations around COVID safety. 

Of course, if transmission rates accelerate, drastic measures such as those applied in Europe will be needed — staggered attendance, school closures and online learning. But this is best avoided if possible.  

Everyone has a vested interest in schools remaining open: kids who are studying for final exams; kids who simply want to be with their friends and parents who want their kids to suffer the least possible disruption to their education. Most parents need to work and business owners need their employees to be able to work. Prioritising core business and increasing COVID safety will reduce the chance that schools will need to close and, as a result, ensure the physical and emotional wellbeing of students, as well as teachers and the wider community.  

Kids understand that adjustments need to be made in the interest of the greater good. And they will learn something real and valuable about civic responsibility, something much more meaningful than they could ever learn in a textbook or from a platitude delivered at a school assembly. Pretending that schools are protected by some kind of magic ring isn’t just dangerous, it’s an insult to their intelligence.   

We’re all in this together — kids and adults. To promulgate the view “it can’t happen here” and act according to that belief, is precisely what will cause it to happen here. Action is needed now. Schools need to be kept safe so that they can remain open.

Karen Armstrong has worked in human services and community welfare and as an English teacher in high schools. She is now working in the field of mediation.

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