Since COVID-19 first emerged in early 2020, Australians have embraced methods to prevent the spread of disease and keep our community safe. AHPPC encourages schools to remain vigilant and continue to prevent opportunities for transmission in school settings.
With COVIDSafe plans and principles in place and health systems ready to quickly identify and respond to cases, schools remain safe places. Students and staff at risk should feel reassured to work and learn onsite and enjoy the benefits of doing so.
Variants of the COVID-19 virus that spread more easily between people have emerged overseas resulting in rapidly expanding outbreaks. People have also been infected with these variants in Australia. In response to this, the National Cabinet has taken steps to reduce the likelihood of these new variants becoming established in the Australian community. The evidence available to us suggests the new variants do not affect children more than adults.
The emergence of new variants highlights the need for Australians to keep taking measures to reduce the risk of COVID-19. The same methods that have prevented the spread of COVID-19 so far will also prevent the spread of the new variants. These include physical distancing, hand and respiratory hygiene, regular cleaning and disinfection of the environment and staying home if unwell.
Ahead of students returning to school, AHPPC recommends schools consult with their jurisdictional education departments and peak organisations, and review the current health requirements and plans.
Public health authorities have well established systems to rapidly identify and respond to cases, which may involve a temporary closure of a school to contain transmission. Where there is community transmission of COVID-19, public health and education authorities should adjust measures to prevent transmission, balanced against the risk. The benefits and risks of school closures should be carefully weighed. This includes the impact on educational, social, health and wellbeing outcomes, especially for disadvantaged students.
If cases of COVID-19, including new variants, emerge in Australia, there is a risk that state and territory borders will have restrictions on entry. Boarding school students can be affected by this. Responsibility for decisions regarding border exemptions ultimately lie with the Chief Health Officer for the relevant state or territory – see AHPPC statement on boarding students and students living in border zones.
Principles to maintain protection against COVID-19
Schools should continue to maintain good behaviours to prevent the spread of disease. This includes frequent handwashing, respiratory hygiene and physical distancing where possible. Children and staff should not attend school if unwell and should stay home and be tested. In circumstances where children have other medical reasons for recurrent symptoms, a letter from the GP is sufficient to allow return to school without a negative test.
Regular environmental cleaning and disinfection, especially of frequently touched surfaces, and promoting outdoor air ventilation where possible, also reduce the risk of transmission.
Settings that enable frequent and close contact between individuals or groups pose a risk of transmission. Therefore, large events require COVIDSafe plans and there may be limits on the number of people who can attend. If there are no restrictions in place, activities such as school camps or excursions may be considered if COVIDSafe plans are in place.
Any additional measures in schools should be balanced against the local risk, such as whether there are cases in the community. If community restrictions are in place, such as requirements to wear masks, these may apply in schools where appropriate. Schools should refer to their own state or territory requirements and recommendations.
It is important that we continue to protect the health and wellbeing of students and staff. Students and staff may experience loneliness, confusion and see distressing scenes and stories from overseas. Head to Health provides online resources on mental health and COVID-19, including information for parents, which may also assist teachers. School systems should support staff with existing Employee Assistance Programs.