Schools around the country are welcoming students back to campus for face-to-face learning after the coronavirus pandemic forced students to learn from home.
At a national level, the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee (AHPPC) has issued advice to schools on how they can reopen safely and what to do if a new case emerges in the school community.
It is then up to each state and territory health and education departments to give specific advice to their schools.
Here is what schools are required to do during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Why are schools allowed to open?
The AHPPC has said that schools can reopen if precautions are taken because there is limited evidence of transmission between children.
As of Tuesday, May 26, there were 90 children aged between zero and nine years old who had been diagnosed with COVID-19 since January 22, while 222 young people aged 10 to 19 had been diagnosed with COVID-19. Combined, this represents about 4.4 per cent of the total confirmed COVID-19 cases in Australia. The youngest Australian to die after contracting the virus was 30-years-old.
This mirrors the experience of other countries as population screening overseas has shown very low incidence of positive cases in school-aged children, according to the AHPPC.
Each state has taken a different approach to face-to-face learning. For example, New South Wales directed all public schools to reopen full-time on Monday 25, while all year levels in Tasmanian and Victorian schools are set to return by June 9.
What happens if a student or teacher gets COVID-19?
First of all, the school should notify the National Coronavirus Helpline on 1800 020 080 or the COVID-19 helpline from their state or territory if there is a suspected or confirmed case of COVID-19 in the school community.
If a staff member or student is unwell or suspected to have COVID-19, they should be directed to go home and self-isolate. Schools should not conduct COVID-19 testing themselves.
The person should wait in an appropriate space at school while they wait for a parent or carer to pick them up as soon as possible. This should be isolated from all other people but provide appropriate supervision.
The AHPPC advises schools to conduct "situationally appropriate environmental cleaning." It does not directly say that schools should close, but this is what has happened in states and territories where cases have been discovered in school communities.
Under the direction of the chief health officer of that state, the school will notify parents and send students home while the campus is thoroughly cleaned and contact tracing is conducted. The chief health officer will decide when it is safe to reopen the school.
We could see more frequent school closures as schools return to full capacity. Two independent schools were forced to close for cleaning in Sydney on Tuesday, just one day after all NSW students went back to school.
What are schools doing to stop the spread of COVID-19?
The AHPPC has provided guidelines for schools to create a safe environment and help stop the spread of COVID-19.
The most important message is that any staff member or student who has any symptoms should stay home from school and get tested for COVID-19.
Teachers who are in a vulnerable person category should arrange to work from home where possible.
Schools are being encouraged to maintain physical distancing on campus. The greatest risk is transmission between adults, rather than children and teenagers, so it's especially important for adults to stay 1.5 metres apart. Parents and volunteers have also been advised to stay out of school grounds to avoid groups of adults mingling.
The AHPPC has advised that the one person per four square metres rule is not appropriate or practical for classrooms and school corridors and that children don't need to keep 1.5 metres apart during classroom activities.
Schools have been directed to make changes around campus, including:
- Staggering lunch breaks, start and finish times and other key transition times to reduce mixing between year levels.
- Putting markings on the floor to separate students while queueing.
- Cancelling school excursions, assemblies, sporting activities and other large gatherings.
- Separating classroom furniture to have as much space between students as possible.
- Encouraging non-contact greetings - no handshakes or hugs allowed.
- Cleaning play equipment after use by each group or at least daily.
- Cleaning and disinfecting frequently used high-touch surfaces at regular intervals through the day.
- Encouraging good hand hygiene.
- Asking students to bring their own food and drink.
- Closing access to water bubblers.
The AHPPC has advised schools that temperature checks are not required as it has said there was limited evidence to demonstrate their value.
What about boarding schools?
Boarding schools have been advised to reduce the number of student staying at their facilities as group accommodation creates a higher risk of transmission. This could be done by billeting students out with families, having boarders who liver closer to school attend as day students or arranging accommodation in smaller groups. Certain groups might be prioritised, for instance Year 11 and 12 students from rural areas.
Boarding schools have to pay extra attention to physical distancing and hygiene. This could mean staggering meal times, minimising use of shared bathrooms and cleaning and disinfecting facilities regularly.
The AHPPC has said single rooms were preferred from an infection prevention and control perspective. If dormitories must be used for accommodation, they should operate at only 25 per cent of the usual capacity.
Boarding schools need to have screening procedures in place, such as a daily questionnaire to quickly identify any symptomatic cases. They also need to have plans in place on how they could isolate any cases and arrange for students to be sent home if needed.
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