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Returning to schools is a question of safety

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The Government wants children back in schools, but medical advice may suggest it's still too early (Screenshot via YouTube)

All states and territories will be back into school teaching periods next week, with mounting pressure to have all schools open to free up parents to return to work.

However, as Dr Martin Hirst reports, teachers’ unions are still questioning just how safe it is for schools to be open.

NSW PREMIER Gladys Berejiklian has announced that schools in her state will be reopening from 11 May and that all students will be required to attend for one day a week of face-to-face learning.

However, the NSW Teachers’ Federation has expressed its concern that the back-to-school plan does not do enough to keep teachers and students safe. In a statement, released on the same day as the Premier’s announcement, the state teachers’ union says the plan is a logistical failure and exposes everyone to potential infection with the coronavirus for a minimal educational benefit.

There are different protocols operating in all the states and territories and Australian Education Union Federal President Correna Haythorpe says this reflects the confusing medical advice coming from the Prime Minister and his health advisors, the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee.

Ms Haythorpe spoke to IA in an exclusive interview which you can hear below.

Despite the name, this is not a committee of school principals, it is a committee of chief medical officers, chaired by the Commonwealth CMO, Brendan Murphy. The medical advice that the AHPPC is relying on is that on the basis of current, but limited, research, children are not highly vulnerable to COVID-19 and are not strong carriers of the virus.

However, Ms Haythorpe says it is “astonishing” that the committee is giving the public contradictory advice about social distancing when it comes to reopening schools:

When you go through the school gates there’s another set of requirements, schools don’t only have children in them, they also have adults, including up to a couple of hundred staff members. But the messages that are coming from politicians, including the Prime Minister, are very confusing.

The Australian Education Union represents a federation of teachers’ unions from around the country and has been leading discussions with the Federal Government about how to safely reopen the nation’s schools.

Ms Haythorpe has told IA that most states are not stepping up to protect teachers or students:

We’ve got a number of questions that we’ve put to governments around the country about how they’re going to ensure the safety of teaching staff. And, with the exception of Victoria and Queensland, the vast majority of states and territories have got a lot of work to do to meet the health and safety needs of our members. We don’t want anyone to be at risk in our schools and governments have a fundamental responsibility to make sure that their employees are safe.

In the last week or two, there has been growing pressure from conservative forces to end the coronavirus lockdown and reopen the economy again. Schools are an essential element in that plan because if parents are to be encouraged back to work, their children need to be in school.

Ms Haythorpe says, for the most part, parents have been supportive of teachers' demands to be protected when they’re working in schools:

“The parent community broadly has been fantastic and incredibly supportive. We’ve had a lot of positive feedback from parents who value the work that teachers have put into getting remote learning up and running around the country at very very short notice.”

It is the confusing messaging from the Government and health advisors that is causing the most concern for parents, says Ms Haythorpe:

In the first instance, we’ve had the message of ‘if you can keep your children at home you should do so’ and very quickly that pivoted to ‘schools are open for everybody, send your children back’. So, there’s a high level of confusion because that is not actually the case right around the country. Schools are open for some children to attend, but open for remote learning for all children.

Ms Haythorpe says there’s “no doubt” that state and territory governments will be put under increasing pressure to reopen more schools for face-to-face students quickly as the school year deepens.

However, she advises them to step “very cautiously” towards school reopening “through the next few weeks”, until all the necessary safety measures are in place:

I don’t think we can sacrifice the health and safety of an entire workforce just for the sake of getting an economic boost happening. The premiers and chief ministers have mostly been clear that schools are open for the children of essential workers and that’s happening. It’s really a bit of ‘wait and see’ at the moment. All schools will be back around the country at the beginning of next week. It’s a good test case for governments to have a look at, to see how to do this well.

The medical advice that governments are relying on is based on only small studies of how the coronavirus affects children and most of them rely on Chinese data from the beginning of the year. Part of the problem facing educators, parents and politicians is that we don’t really know how reliable the medical data is.

Children do not seem to be as severely affected by the symptoms of COVID-19, but the epidemiological studies show that they can be asymptomatic carriers and thus have the potential to infect peers, parents and other adults.

A piece in The Lancet examining Chinese data makes this alarming conclusion:

Although all paediatric patients in our cohort had mild or moderate type of COVID-19, the large proportion of asymptomatic children indicates the difficulty in identifying paediatric patients who do not have clear epidemiological information, leading to a dangerous situation in community-acquired infections.

The same article also says pneumonia type infections in children can ‘result in severe damage to vital organs’ that can be long-lasting.

And just to bring the point home that’s relevant to the Australian context, the Lancet talks about schools in Hubei:

At the time of the COVID-19 outbreak, all schools were on the spring festival holiday, which might have prevented children from exposure to transmission sources. However, the school community is a place that can enhance rapid spread of the highly infectious SARS-CoV-2.

An article in the Journal of Autoimmunity suggests that transmission through children is a problem to be specifically addressed and describes children as a ‘susceptible population’:

Special attention and efforts to protect or reduce transmission should be applied in susceptible populations including children, health care providers and elderly people.

You can read my longer review of the medical literature for yourself. Despite these qualifications, senior medical researchers continue to argue that schools are safe for children and that they are robust enough to cope with mild exposure to the coronavirus.

Professor Bruce Thompson is Dean of Health Sciences at Swinburne University and president of the Thoracic Society of Australia and New Zealand.

In an interview recorded on Monday 20 April, Professor Thompson told IA that there is very little risk to children if they return to school.

In my view and in the eyes of the teachers’ union, this is still very much an open question. Parents are in the difficult position of having to weigh up the contradictory evidence from medical researchers, government officials, the teachers’ unions and interfering journalists like me who think that it is important to consider human life ahead of the economy.

Because each state and territory is different, every parent will have to check local requirements and health protocols before deciding to gamble with the lives of their children and the lives of teachers.

Victoria:

New South Wales:

Queensland:

South Australia:

Western Australia:

Tasmania:

Australian Capital Territory:

Northern Territory:

Dr Martin Hirst is an Independent Australia columnist, a journalist, author and academic. You can follow him on Twitter @ethicalmartini.

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