Politics Opinion

PM doubles down on sending kids back to school

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Scott Morrison wants kids to go back to school amid the Omicron wave (Screenshot via YouTube)

Prime Minister Morrison wants to send kids back to schools despite evidence that it's not safe to do so, writes Natalie Beak.

MY CHILD is seven years old. His first weeks at school as a kindergarten kid were a blur of bewildering, exciting and challenging new experiences. All that was cut short by a statewide lockdown in week five of Term 1 2020.

Since then, my son has graduated year one amidst further disruptions to schooling including more lockdowns, then COVID-19 incursions as schools reopened and cases spread in classrooms during Term 4 of 2021. He is about to embark on his third year of education, at the peak of Australia’s Omicron wave, with 100,000 daily national cases, yet our Prime Minister has announced unequivocally that schools should remain open and the show must go on.

In an open letter to the Australian Government published in the Sydney Morning Herald, a group of professionals whose ideas align with the Great Barrington Declaration, have decreed:

‘We now have evidence that it is safe to allow schools to be open for face-to-face learning.’

As a parent, I want to see that evidence. As a founding member of COVID Safe Schools, the evidence we have seen strongly indicates otherwise. Our association – a group of concerned parents, teachers and community members – tracked school closures across NSW in Term 4. We found that schools experienced over 1,000 COVID-19 incursions during Term 4 with the most incursions reported in weeks nine to 11 when changes to close contact isolation rules were announced, a measure designed to supposedly reduce disruption.

The December NSW Health surveillance report lists schools and child care settings as high risk environments, with the alarming graph below showing that schools have recorded the highest number of infectious cases in attendance for every week of the school term.

(Source: NSW Health)

The evidence clearly shows schools are not safe. But they can be. We know the best place for most children to learn is in the classroom. That is why it is so important to ensure schools are safe to open and remain open.

Experts from around the globe, including the World Health Organisation, tell us that ventilation and air quality monitoring is crucial to reduce the risk of airborne spread. CO2 monitors are accessible, easy to use and require no infrastructure support to install or operate. Every classroom across Australia needs a CO2 monitor to ensure air levels are kept below 800ppm, just like classrooms across Europe, Canada, New York and the UK. HEPA filtration must be provided to support air quality when safe levels of CO2 cannot be maintained.

Mask mandates must be enacted and every child and teacher should be provided a high-quality mask. The NSW DoE’s failure to set a mask mandate meant my child was only one of two children in his class wearing a mask in Term 4. For him, it meant helping to protect his best friend and mask buddy, who has an immunocompromised sibling.

My seven-year-old child has a good grasp of the importance of personal responsibility, but he is also entitled under WHS law to receive an education in a safe workplace and be protected from contracting a novel virus with a range of potential long-term potential health impacts.

Children are the “lost voices” of this pandemic — they have been the last to receive access to vaccination and have had no option but to follow government guidelines and directives to ensure access to education. COVID Safe Schools strongly believes in the right to choose whether to return to face-to-face learning, or to receive support for remote learning.

Despite what the authors of the SMH opinion piece say, there is no evidence of prolonged negative mental health effects of remote learning. In fact, remote learning is a long-established and well understood means of delivering education, through distance education programs and home learning for children across Australia.

What we do know is that NSW students performed above the national average in this year’s NAPLAN, despite the many disruptions. We also know that medical trauma has significant mental health effects on children and there is real fear amongst children around bringing COVID-19 home to vulnerable family members.

The authors of the SMH opinion piece also claim:

‘Our Australian data confirms COVID-19 is a mild disease in children.’

Whilst that is the case for many children, we also know that 1-2 in 100 children will be hospitalised, that one in 1,000 will be admitted to ICU and one in 3,000 will develop the serious inflammatory condition PIMS-TS. These are not small numbers considering our political leaders have repeatedly said that widespread COVID-19 infections are inevitable.

A delay to the start of the school term to allow children time to access two doses of a COVID-19 vaccine is a common sense measure already adopted by SA and Queensland. In fact, rural areas have delayed the start of year due to hot weather and I’m sure parents across Sydney would fondly remember an extension to their summer school holidays in 2000 to allow them more time to experience the excitement of the Olympics.                            

Children have a fundamental right to both high-quality education and health and wellbeing. These two liberties are not mutually exclusive and can be achieved with proactive mitigation measures — the same measures already afforded our politicians. I know for my child, attending school is important but not if it means bringing COVID-19 home along with his half-eaten sandwich.


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

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