National cabinet has now accepted advice to vaccinate children 12 and over, but this will take time to roll out and still leaves younger children in limbo.
Meanwhile, there remains no coherent national guidance on managing inevitable COVID-19 outbreaks in schools and childcare settings.
While NSW’s COVID-19 plan to return students to the classroom in Greater Sydney from October 25 leaves many questions unanswered, at least it is a start.
Elsewhere, planning for the effects of the next phase of the pandemic on children seems to be trailing a long way behind.
But without a robust plan to manage the risks of COVID-19 in schools and childcare settings, the immense disruption to children’s education, social development and mental health could well extend into a third year.
While COVID-19 is a milder disease in children than adults, young people still face some risk of severe illness and death, and about 2 per cent of those infected will experience symptoms for at least eight weeks.
As more adults are vaccinated, COVID-19 is increasingly becoming a disease of the young. When it gets a toehold inside schools and childcare settings, it will spread among unvaccinated children.
But measures to control outbreaks will also cause ongoing disruption, not just for the children, but for their families, educators and other staff.
All governments need to include protocols for schools and childcare settings in any broader plans to ease restrictions, particularly now that community case numbers are so high in some states.
There are two things governments need to do.
First, they should gear up for mass vaccinations of children over 12 at schools. And they should be aiming high. With children 12 and over eligible from September 13, governments should seek to provide two doses to them by the end of the year, even if this requires a second dose during the school holidays.
For its part, the federal government should secure adequate vaccine supplies and provide evidence-based information to allow parents to make informed decisions. Alongside high rates of vaccinations for school staff and parents, a concerted effort across all states could see secondary schools returning to something like normal by the start of next year.
Clinical trials ongoing
Unfortunately, the timeline does not look as good for primary schools or childcare settings.
Clinical trials are still assessing vaccine safety and efficacy for children under 12, and it is possible that younger children won’t be fully vaccinated until mid-2022.
This makes it even more important that states act urgently to limit outbreaks in primary schools and childcare settings through other means.
The second crucial step is governments should be implementing strict measures to reduce the risk of COVID-19 spread in schools and childcare settings.
As infections in the community grow and restrictions begin to ease, every primary school and childcare centre in the country will be at risk of intermittent closures to manage outbreaks well into next year.
Government planning can help to minimise these disruptions. Improved ventilation, carbon dioxide monitoring, open windows, the installation of HEPA filters into classrooms and common areas, and density limits – where possible – may help.
Regular rapid antigen testing at the school gate could also be used as a screening mechanism, as it is in the UK and some parts of the US.
While not perfect, these tests are easy to use, and they return fast results. When outbreaks do occur, state governments can reduce disruption by preparing for faster returns to school with enhanced testing and targeted isolation.
Clear national and state-level guidance should be provided, so that schools are not left trying to work out the best approaches to manage risk on their own.
Unless we can ensure families are confident that schools and childcare settings are as safe as possible, there is a risk that some parents will keep their children home – as survey data from the United States foreshadows.
Young Australians have already been hit hard by the pandemic and the prospect of a return to a truly normal education is still many months away.
Sooner or later, every state and every school in the country will face the issues we are seeing in NSW, as Australia starts to open up. There is no excuse for complacency.
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