What should be in Victoria’s school reopening plan - Grattan Institute

The pandemic has hugely disrupted the lives of Victoria’s schoolchildren.

Melbourne students missed about 20 weeks of face-to-face school in 2020 and have already missed another 10 weeks so far in 2021. And given current high levels of community transmission, the prospects for children returning to school in Melbourne for the start of Term 4 are looking bleak.

But getting children back to school as soon as possible should remain a top priority for the Victorian government. Within the overarching constraint of ensuring the health system is not swamped by severe COVID cases, the government should weigh up all possible options to get students back to school safely before the end of the year – even if that means delaying plans to ease other restrictions.

Keeping schools closed reduces the risk of transmission, but it comes with significant costs to children, including the risks of disrupted learning, mental health problems, and social challenges due to isolation.

And while school closures have been tough for most students, the burdens weigh particularly heavily on the most disadvantaged children. Closing schools – along with preschools and childcare centres – also disrupts the working lives of parents and teachers.

Last month, NSW announced a plan for children to return to face-to-face learning. It’s time for Victoria to do the same.

Victoria’s plan needs to do two things.

First, it should set a clear timeline for the return of all children to the classroom during Term 4. Melbourne schools could reopen fully in November, provided Victoria achieves the necessary high rates of double vaccination of the adult population. When it announces the schools reopening plan, the government should also publish the modelling used to support the opening date.

The return to school should be staggered, beginning with students in prep to grade 2 and students in Years 10 to 12.

The goal should be to ensure that all children have at least four weeks in the classroom before the long summer break, which begins on December 18. This would allow time for students to re-establish bonds with their classmates and teachers, experience those important end-of-year milestones, and prepare for the transition to a new school year.

Just as importantly, it would allow time for teachers to assess the impact of months of lockdowns on their students’ learning, mental health and social development. It is essential that teachers identify as soon as possible any acute challenges that some children may face now, so that the school and the system can give those students the support they will need in 2022.

Second, Victoria’s plan must include steps to make schools as safe as possible.

Vaccination is the first line of defence. Vaccinations should be mandated for all school staff in Victoria, as they have been in NSW. The state government should also announce a vaccine rollout plan for all children aged 12 and older. The goal should be to ensure all eligible children have had the opportunity to receive a double vaccination before the start of Term 1 next year.

The supply of vaccines is scheduled to rapidly increase in coming weeks. The Victorian government should make it easy for all children aged 12 and older to be vaccinated. It should launch a campaign to enable parents to provide informed consent. And it should start planning now for when children under 12 become eligible for vaccination.

Rapid antigen testing at the school gate should be part of Victoria’s reopening plan. Improving ventilation in schools is also critical. Opening windows and installing CO2 monitors is a good first step. Where necessary, classrooms should also have air filters. These will need to be sourced and installed as soon as possible.

Other strategies include mandatory masking for staff and secondary students when indoors, and recommended for primary school students, keeping students in separate groups to reduce the risk of widespread transmission, and limiting the number and range of school activities and events.

All schools should have a strategy for quarantining infected students and close contacts. These measures will be particularly important in primary schools, because children under 12 are not expected to be eligible for vaccination until 2022.

Victoria’s return-to-school plan, expected to be announced within days, must outline a clear timetable, ensure schools are as safe as possible, and provide confidence that children will be able to be vaccinated as soon as possible.

This will help reassure parents and students. And it will be a step towards ending the damaging disruptions to our children’s lives.

Stephen Duckett

Health and Aged Care Program Director
Dr Stephen Duckett has held top operational and policy leadership positions in health care in Australia and Canada, including as Secretary of what is now the Commonwealth Department of Health.    

Jordana Hunter

Education Program Director
Jordana Hunter is the Education Program Director at Grattan Institute. She has an extensive background in public policy design and implementation, with expertise in school education reform as well as economics policy.

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