“I would say to all parents that I understand that this is a worrying time, but they should be heartened by the fact that we have the best medical experts in the world here in Australia, and we are working closely with them and acting upon their advice,” federal Education Minister Dan Tehan said.
Well-placed sources within the sector say mass school closures are unlikely to happen in Australia soon, and that schools could be one of the last institutions to face mass closures.
The exceptions are exclusive boarding school Geelong Grammar — which is ending term one this week — and Launceston’s Scotch Oakburn College, which has moved to online learning.
In a letter to parents, Geelong Grammar principal Rebecca Cody cited the school’s unique position, hosting students from 16 countries as well as every Australian state and territory.
“We deem this to be a timely judgment with a highly precautionary emphasis,” she said in a written statement.
If social distancing is key, why not close schools?
One reason is that, at this stage, school-aged children seem to be the cohort least affected by the virus. The reasons for that are not yet known.
Data from countries that have closed schools to slow the spread of COVID-19 shows it’s not the panacea some think.
According to modelling from the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there’s no evidence that Hong Kong — which closed schools — was more successful in containing the virus than Singapore, which didn’t.
What if kids are ‘super spreaders’?
Virologist Ian MacKay from the University of Queensland said making the decision whether to send kids to school was indeed challenging.
“If we were really serious about flattening the curve [of spread of the virus] we would have to think about closing schools,” he said.
“But we have to balance that against all the social disruption that would cause, including taking people out of various jobs so parents could look after small children at home.”
What the experts are saying about coronavirus:
Professor MacKay said experts simply don’t know yet if children who appeared to be healthy were in fact carrying and spreading the virus.
“We need to find that out so we can have a better understanding of the role that schools play in transmitting the virus.”
If a student or teacher tests positive to coronavirus, temporary closures will continue, to allow for disinfecting and contact tracing.
What’s unequivocal is that the best thing parents can do is ensure children wash their hands for 20 seconds with soap and water, and observe good hygiene.
Easier said than done? This cartoon may help when you explain to your little ones why they should sing the alphabet twice while they wash their hands.
School closures could be dangerous
The other advice experts are urging us to consider is that it could actually be more dangerous to close schools than to keep them open.
“The advice from medical experts is that not having students at school could actually lead to a greater risk of the virus spreading,” Mr Tehan said.
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According to the CDC, that’s because unsupervised children might engage in social mixing without adults keeping track of who is meeting who.
“Longer closures may result in more students congregating outside of school [eg other students’ homes, shopping malls], which will increase risk to older adults or those with comorbidities,” it warns.
Robert Booy, from the Centre for Research Excellence in Population Health, said a review of scientific literature of school closures and epidemics found closing schools had an “equivocal benefit” on stopping transmission.
“If you take kids out of school, they then mix with adults and other kids in the park and that may do as much harm as good,” Professor Booy said.
Without school, of course, children still need to be cared for and that may mean grandparents are called on for extra babysitting duties.
Older carers are among the most susceptible to suffering serious symptoms and are also among those most likely to die.
Professor Booy said if children are at all unwell, their grandparents should not be the people caring for them.
“If possible, one parent working from home or alternative care would be better,” he said.
How else could schooling change?
Education ministers are actively considering extending the two-week Easter holidays to three weeks.
That would allow social distancing to continue but with a degree of planning and with less disruption than an immediate long-term mass closure.
It would also allow time and breathing space to assess and implement additional hygiene measures on campuses.
It will likely be considered for the two-week winter break too.
“That will be dependent on the medical advice that the government is given but obviously schools and government are planning contingencies so we have them in place if the medical advice says that we need to look at such things,” Mr Tehan said.
More schools may also move to cancel large gatherings like assemblies and change long-established school routines.
Other options to slow the spread of the virus could include closing playgrounds, stopping non-essential gatherings at schools, staggering lunch breaks, changing the timetable to a three or four-day week, and rotating secondary school teachers between classrooms rather than having scores of students changing classrooms.
“These measures can make a difference and there are very high costs of lengthy school closures,” Professor Booy said.
The public, private and catholic sectors at this stage are united in their plans to keep classes running, although all are making preparations for remote teaching.
Closing schools could impact the medical workforce
Closing schools across the board could also impact the ability of the health workforce to provide medical care, when it’s most needed.
“If you have a school where a significant number of [parents are] health workers and they have to take time off work to look after their kids, then the intensive care units could end up under a lot more stress,” Professor Booy said.
Health authorities across the world are grappling with how to manage school closures and still allow the health workforce to function.
Mr Tehan said that is a key reason schools are remaining open for now.
“It’s also so we don’t have any impacts on workforce, in particular, on our medical workforce, at this stage,” he said.
What would likely trigger mass closures?
The newly formed National Cabinet will review schools again on Friday.
If the outbreak begins to climb steeply, it could change its advice.
Mr Tehan said the decision will be made by experts rather than politicians.
“They are the ones that have the expertise when it comes to pandemic planning and it is their advice that both the Federal Government and state and territory governments are listening too,” he said.
Australian authorities believe coronavirus will pose a threat for at least six months.
School closures would be an extreme social distancing measure and part of the arsenal held in reserve.
“All contingencies have been planned for and Australia has been preparing now since the end of January and [has] put in place contingencies and we will continue to do that,” Mr Tehan said.
School closures are currently being deployed as part of wider lockdowns across Europe, which is the new epicentre of the virus.
About 30 countries have implemented national school closures, affecting 400 million children, and a further 20 countries have enforced localised closures.
Belgium, France and Switzerland are the latest countries to close schools and despite being hit hard by COVID-19, most German states have opted to keep classes running.
The Republic of Ireland closed schools before its neighbours in Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland is now warning its closures may be as long as 16 weeks.
What about childcare?
Essentially, that’s up to you. If you’re able to work from home, experts say it would greatly assist Australia’s social distancing efforts.
It would also help minimise contact and therefore the spread of the virus for adults, rather than young children.
There is also evidence early childhood learning at childcare and pre-school can help children achieve better results when they start primary school.
Parents should note that childcare centres are unlikely to offer a fee break, unless parents forfeit the child’s spot altogether.