Heed difficult lessons about returning children to school

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One of the most frustrating aspects of the pandemic has been the inability of governments to plan ahead for obvious and emerging problems. From shortages of personal protective equipment in 2020 to the delay in purchasing and deploying vaccines to this year’s lack of preparedness for the outbreak of Omicron infections, governments have too often failed to consider the evidence from overseas and their own modeling and plan for all scenarios.

Other challenges could arise in a few weeks when schools are scheduled to resume after the summer break. Prime Minister Scott Morrison said last week that schools would “return and stay on the first day of the first term”, and Victorian-era Acting Prime Minister Jacinta Allan reiterated on Sunday that there was no change provided for students returning to school in that state. In New South Wales, Prime Minister Dominic Perrottet said he was “incredibly confident” that schools would go back in time and that it was “not negotiable” – but he was guilty of excess of trust and under-planning in the past.

Reflecting her greater caution and the slower start of the Omicron wave in Queensland, Prime Minister Annastacia Palaszczuk said on Sunday she would delay the start of the school year by two weeks to avoid the peak of the pandemic and give children more time. to get vaccinated.

In theory, Age agrees that schools should resume their normal course. Victorian schoolchildren have missed around 200 days of school in the past two years due to COVID-19 restrictions and costs are rising. There has already been an increase in the number of children seeking help with mental health issues, and that’s not counting the burden of home learning on working parents.

Still, getting back to school safely will take a tremendous amount of effort. The Omicron wave may well still be at its peak in February and tens of thousands of students will be quickly infected, especially those between the ages of five and 11, who have not had the opportunity to be fully vaccinated. Children are, of course, much less likely to be seriously ill than adults, but parents will always be concerned, both for the health of their children and for fear that they will bring COVID-19 back into the family home. .

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Governments should at least learn from the northern hemisphere, where schools have already returned from their Christmas holidays. Rather than shutting down entire schools after a single case, some countries send home only specific classes where the case is detected or, in some cases, send home only students who have tested positive.

But this approach can only work if schools have sufficient stocks of rapid home antigen test kits to allow all students to take a test once or twice a week, or to quickly test all classmates. classify known cases and send home all those who are positive. Without these checks, known as the ‘test to stay’, the disease will spread through schools in no time.

Schools should also use other disease control measures such as wearing masks, ventilation and what is known as the cohort where students are divided into separate grade groups that have minimal contact with each other. others. Some of these techniques are already known from the start of the school year after the Delta wave.


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