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Perrottet ignores school COVID safety

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The NSW Government has squandered the time it could have spent making school safer (Image by Dan Jensen)

The Perrottet Government isn't doing enough to ensure the safe return of kids to schools amid the Omicron wave, writes Karen Armstrong.

THE ADVOCACY GROUP COVID Safe Schools is not advocating for a boycott or closure of schools, despite the way some elements in the media have chosen to frame our argument. We are in fact, advocating for schools to remain open, but with sufficient safety measures in place.

The court action that we are taking is aimed at giving parents the right to keep their children home if they feel that the level of risk is higher than they are willing to accept and be granted either pandemic leave or the option of accessing remote learning — ideally through a distance education facility.

This is particularly important right now since NSW has one of the highest community transmission rates in the world and the 5-11-year olds have not yet had the opportunity to be double vaccinated. Given that the Government has made vaccination the cornerstone of its COVID response, it seems ironic, if not hypocritical, to deny parents the right to keep their kids at home, at least until that point.

The Department of Education policy is that principals have a right to grant children up to 100 days leave where they deem the reason for that leave acceptable. The problem with this is that while many principals do see COVID as a genuine concern, others don’t; some feel under pressure to deny leave even when they would prefer to grant it.

It shouldn’t come down to the personal perspectives of individual principals and it shouldn’t put principals in the difficult position of having to determine the risk that any given family should have to accept. It should be managed consistently and transparently.

There has been a lot of attention given to the fact that few children die of COVID. This is certainly good news, but we need to get past just talking about death rates and start thinking about the very real risk of disability.

There have been a handful of high-profile doctors in the media claiming that COVID is mild in children and staking their careers on the idea that COVID won’t have any long-term consequences. But there are many doctors and scientists who are just as qualified, notably many members of OzSAGE, arguing for the application of the precautionary principle given the difficulties of predicting the possible long-term outcomes of infection in what is, by definition, a novel disease.

Research shows that 7-8 per cent of children who are infected will develop Long COVID, which involves long-term damage to the brain, lungs and other organs. Crunch the numbers and that is 20-30 children in the average primary school and around 50 in each high school. Given these statistics, it seems incredible to suggest that parents aren’t justified in choosing to keep their children home from school.

I am a mother of two children. And I desperately want my children to go to school. I want them to be with their friends and classmates and to live a normal life. But I want the schools to be made safe.

The DoE’s intransigence on the issue of CO2 monitoring and air filtration has led to a situation where the schools are still not safe. They have squandered the last 12 months. They could have been fitting out classrooms with CO2 monitors and HEPA filtration which significantly cuts the risk of transmission. But they haven’t. And they are still refusing to commit to it.

Ventilation has been shown to be as important, if not more important, than vaccines in keeping people safe. And it will work, if and when we encounter new vaccine-resistant variants. The United Kingdom, many European and Asian countries along with various jurisdictions in North America have invested in this relatively inexpensive equipment. I’m not sure why the children in NSW should have to settle for second rate safety measures.

NSW Education Minister Sarah Mitchell stated again last week that schools are one of the safest places in the community. Given the concentration of people in schools and in classrooms where they have no hope of social distancing, this assertion doesn’t pass the pub test. And it certainly isn’t supported by the data that exists on the number of COVID incursions in NSW and Victorian schools throughout Term 4, the data on the size of school outbreaks, or the experience and research from overseas.

If the Government is serious about the importance of keeping kids in classrooms, then it needs to commit to making schools genuinely safe.

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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