Australia needs a national plan for children, schools and COVID-19

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As we start the third year of the global pandemic, with surging cases of COVID across Australia, the nation’s attention has now turned to schools and early child education and care.

For the first time during the pandemic this is a pressing issue for every state and territory. In 2022, more than ever, schools and early child education and care are being discussed, and decisions quickly being reached about the start of the school year.

The nation’s attention has turned to schools and early child education and care.Credit:Simon Schluter

Queensland has already announced a two-week delay, managed by an extra week tacked on at the end of the year. Currently, NSW plans to start schools on time at the end of January. Other states are still deliberating. But really our kids across the country need equitable access to education – it should be an issue of national priority especially given the previous loss of face-to-face school days for Victoria and NSW.

Every school day matters, and the social and educational benefits of face-to-face learning are important to all, but especially to the most economically and socially vulnerable children in Australia.

So, how can we address this national priority? The Australian Health Protection Principal Committee is our key decision-making committee for health emergencies and is well designed to lead our national response. The need for a national plan with equitable access to education is not just about children’s learning – it is a health priority across Australia, on par with the priority we have given to vaccination policy.

No one expects these decisions or processes to be easy, but there are a number of issues that need immediate resolution.

These issues include vaccination. This week, we see the commencement of primary school COVID vaccination with five- to 11-year-olds now able to receive a vaccine. The experience of this vaccine in other countries has been very reassuring with reported side effects consistent with those seen in the clinical trials. Boosters for teachers and school staff have been recommended to provide added protection from the new variant.

Adolescents with immune-compromising conditions are recommended to receive a third dose. Ensuring that bookings for COVID vaccination can be met for children, adolescents and school staff remains important. And later this year, we will hear about the vaccine trials for children under five years.

Schools must open and stay open but as COVID surges, there needs to be a common framework for determining when and if school should revert to online for short periods of time for some children; noting that this might be the best way for teaching if a number of teachers are furloughed. Here is the opportunity to consider how high-quality, equitable online provision can be enabled across the country – a potential game-changer for families and children unable to access schools.

This week sees the start of vaccinations for children aged five to 11.Credit:Flavio Brancaleone

Consistent and well-implemented mitigation strategies need to be agreed and evaluated. This includes issues of contact tracing, availability of rapid antigen tests and PCR (and consistency in when to use), and use of ventilation and masks across schools and early child education and care. Digital platforms that enable daily symptom uploads from parents could help make this process happen.

Early childhood education and care is by far the hardest and therefore needs our greatest attention. To date, there is no COVID vaccine for under fives, and the sector relies heavily on young, female staff, who are over-represented in case numbers in the current COVID surge. Yet the availability of quality childcare for working families is paramount to a strong economy.

We know little of the current mental health and wellbeing of our kids. In the short-term a regular national mental health and wellbeing pulse survey could tell us a lot about how our kids are faring through another year of uncertainty for them and their families. This will help direct the significant mental health policy effort to ensure it is well targeted.

Going forward, mental health and wellbeing should be measured at a national level, perhaps as an adjunct to NAPLAN testing in years 3, 5, 7 and 9, so that policies can be developed and programs refined to build resilience and address mental health concerns.

Clear, effective, comprehensive communication with families is needed, and how different strategies will be implemented on a weekly basis. School principals and early child education and care staff will need extra support to be able to implement much of what is outlined above – this is not a trivial exercise.

For two years, Australia’s children, young people and their families have tolerated school closures to protect the adult and elderly population from COVID-19. Now it’s time for the kids. Developing a national plan will not be easy; but it is vital. As we learn to live with COVID, we need to prioritise our next generation, and give them the education they need to lead our country in the decades to come.

Associate Professor Asha Bowen is Head of Infectious Diseases at Perth Children’s Hospital and Program Head of Vaccines and Infectious Diseases at the Telethon Kids Institute.

Professor Sharon Goldfeld is Theme Director of Population Health and Director of the Centre for Community Child Health at the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute.

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