Health Opinion

Outrage over school COVID breeding grounds

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Scott Morrison is urging schools to open while Omicron is still ravaging communities (Image by Dan Jensen)

Teachers are expressing concern over the Government's rush to send kids back to schools while the pandemic is worsening, writes Dr Marie Clark.

THE RECIPE for the spread of a virus is as follows:

  1. Take several hundred people of various ages who live in different residences. Ensure many of them cannot wipe their noses efficiently.
  2. Place the people in small spaces together for at least six hours. At several intervals throughout the day, mix them up randomly and allow them to run, play, yell at each other, wrestle, and/or hug. 
  3. Ensure they eat all meals together. 
  4. Return them to their places of residence, where they will mix with the people they live with.
  5. Repeat steps 1-3 daily for the next four days.

No one could argue that this would be a very effective way to spread any transmissible disease, but with rates of COVID-19 in Australia currently among the highest per capita in the world, it seems we don’t actually need any such recipe. However, in less than a fortnight, it will be followed closely in every school around the country, when students and staff return from the summer holidays. 

The Queensland and South Australian governments are moving to remote learning for the start of term one, to avoid the predictable COVID-19 explosion and to allow better mitigations to be implemented in schools. However, the Victorian and NSW premiers have unequivocally stated that students will return to school on day one, term one, citing an unacceptable impact of remote learning on student mental health and disadvantaged students.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison framed the issue differently, stating that “schools open means shops are open”. Teachers surely spat their coffee out at this statement, which reduces schools to babysitting services, helpfully warehousing students for the day so parents can contribute to the economy.

Perhaps we teachers should be grateful for the refreshing honesty. Forgive me for being cynical, but I find the handwringing about student disadvantage and mental health rather difficult to take, given the lack of action on these issues prior to the pandemic. Oh, now we care about disadvantaged students, do we? Perhaps, then, we could fund public schools sufficiently, given they teach the overwhelming majority of students from low socioeconomic backgrounds. Yeah, nah.

In fact, the narrative of remote learning as harbinger of student mental illness is not supported by evidence from around the world. Self-harm and suicide rates among teens have been lower or unchanged during remote learning than during pre-pandemic onsite learning. 

Conversely, there is evidence that suicidal presentations increased when there was significant community spread of the virus and no restrictions. Of course, living through a global pandemic has a big impact on mental health, as will sending students into a poorly managed, infectious environment after spending two years telling them that getting COVID-19 is bad.

Most frustratingly, if schools do simply forge ahead as usual, ignoring that we are in the worst phase of the pandemic so far, they will cease to function. This has occurred already in the U.S., France and the UK. As teacher shortages bite, classes are combined, creating overcrowding of students and further viral spread. Supervision, rather than education, becomes the priority. Educational and extracurricular programs will be disrupted, then cancelled. It will be chaotic and as schools close without warning. 

And of course, everyone will get the bloody virus. Some students and staff will become very ill. The alternative: a pre-planned, formalised remote learning program, temporarily operating until schools are safer for all.

In Victorian schools, mitigation measures are currently almost non-existent. Although Education Minister James Merlino has committed to providing every school in Victoria with HEPA filters, they are yet to materialise in most schools, including my own. DET-funded school “COVID cleaning”, introduced in 2020, consists of one person with a Chux, wiping door handles.

Many classrooms are poorly ventilated. Most classrooms and staff offices are too small and/or crowded to allow effective social distancing. Masks will, of course, be worn by staff and students over the age of eight, but it is very challenging to enforce proper mask-wearing among children and teens. 

To be clear, teachers want students in schools, onsite, in our classrooms. We love working face-to-face with students. We want to do our jobs. Unfortunately, we have been told to “live with COVID”. We’ve been asked to continue to teach through a public health crisis, without any tools or supports with which to do so. 

Imagine if a teacher walked into a classroom, pointed at the students, and said “learn calculus” without providing them with any tools or support. We would not be doing our jobs. I ask the the Victorian and NSW governments to do theirs — to support schools by moving to a brief period of remote learning until some of the most basic protections are in place. 

We need ventilation, air filtration systems, CO2 measurement, vaccinated children and, if possible, maybe not one of the highest COVID-19 infection rates in the world.

Dr Marie Clark is the Head of the Senior School at Maffra Secondary College and has a PhD in Immunology from the University of Melbourne.

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Outrage over school COVID breeding grounds

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