School safety overlooked as COVID-19 infections rise



State governments and the federal government have rushed children into schools despite failing to take adequate precautions against COVID-19, writes Karen Armstrong.

MEDIA IMAGES of school entrances adorned with balloons and children and teachers celebrating their return belied the realities of reopening before the deployment of ventilation equipment and the pediatric vaccine. Since the start of the fourth trimester, tens of thousands of Australian children have contracted COVID-19.

In New South Wales, approximately 500 children contracted it every week and in Victoria there have been thousands of it every week, with over 90% of outbreaks performing in schools. While state and federal governments do not report the number of schools closed or affected, community activists who have followed this estimate that since the start of the fourth quarter, there have been nearly 600 schools affected in New South Wales and nearly 800 affected in Victoria.

Politicians have touted their decision to reopen schools as being based on child welfare and while it is a relief for many to come back, if politicians were truly motivated by concerns about child welfare, they would do a lot more to keep them safe.

Even if one accepts the hypothesis that the long-term health of children is worth jeopardizing for the good of the economy, or that school attendance is necessary for educational or psychosocial reasons, the government owes it to children to make schools as safe as possible. possible and they are committed to doing so. But they didn’t.

It is now well established that one of the strongest measures to keep schools safe is ventilation. The Victorian government’s commitment to provide schools with CO2 HEPA monitors and filters seems reasonable, even though the deployment has been extremely slow. But in New South Wales, aside from a few flippant policy statements on ventilation helping to make classrooms safer and their dogged insistence that natural ventilation is the best, the Ministry of Education and Training (DET) still did not enforce keeping windows open.

One of the assumptions the government has relied on is that a predominantly vaccinated adult population will make schools safe. This is not the case and it will not be. Even when the youngest are vaccinated, breakthrough infections will occur. As the virus continues to circulate, even the The government concedes it’s a reality, schools will require the application of other measures. There is also the problem of vaccine resistant variants. It’s too early to say if Omicron will fit this description, but we’ll likely come across such mutations eventually.

Sending children and teachers to schools without adequate risk mitigation measures is not only unacceptable, it violates WHS legislation, which is based on the idea that no one should be exploited for the benefit of someone else. WHS legislation doesn’t just exist to protect workers, it exists to protect people entering the workplace – and that includes students.

In addition to this legislation, under the common law, school authorities have a duty of care to students and they must do what is “reasonably possible” to protect them. This duty is imposed on teachers, but the educational authorities themselves show reckless contempt for it. Many people mistakenly assume that the government decides what level of risk is acceptable and that public health orders determine it. They don’t. What is “reasonably practicable†is assessed by weighing the difficulties of mitigating the risk against the risk itself.

COVID-19 is a race and our children are left at the start line

Much is made of the fact that few children die of COVID-19 and it is true that few do. However, one in 20 Australian children who were infected were hospitalized. Importantly, we don’t yet know what the long-term consequences of the disease will be for those who survive it, but there is credible evidence to suggest that it can cause long-term organ damage to the brain, heart and lungs, even in those with mild cases.

International studies show that “Long COVID», Now recognized by the World Health Organization, impacts approximately 8 percent of children who are infected. This results in a multitude of symptoms such as fatigue, cognitive dysfunction and shortness of breath, as they significantly impair daily functioning.

It seems “reasonably feasible” for DET to avoid this risk by engaging in the deployment of very affordable CO2 monitors in each classroom and, if necessary, installation of air filters.

It is only a matter of time before those who have been infected with COVID-19 in school and are suffering from it take legal action, just as those who have contracted it now are. job. There have already been more than 2,000 workers linked to COVID compensation claims in Australia and class actions for exposure to COVID-19 are ongoing.

Given that more than 60,000 children in Australia have been infected since the start of the pandemic and an estimated 5,000 of them are likely to be affected by Long COVID, it would seem prudent for school authorities to start taking this seriously.

Education authorities must remember that they do not only have a moral obligation to protect. They have a legal obligation to do so. And the implications of ignoring such responsibilities may well extend beyond a bad conscience.

Karen Armstrong has worked in social services and community welfare and as an English teacher in high schools. She now works in the field of mediation.

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