Dozens of Australia’s top academics, doctors and community leaders have joined forces to write open letter to the federal and state governments calling for schools to reopen as the Omicron Covid-19 wave hits its peak.
Thousands of students will return to the classroom in the coming weeks for the 2022 school year as Covid infections surge to record levels.
As Queensland delayed its start to term one by two weeks, a group of leading figures have written to Prime Minister Scott Morrison and state and territory premiers, calling for reassurance to families that schools are safe to return.
The letter urges governments to follow the principle set by the World Health Organisation and the United Nations Children’s Fund that in a pandemic ‘schools must be the last to close and the first to open’.
The authors describe students as the forgotten voices of the pandemic after thousands had their education disrupted for months at the time during lockdown.
The federal and state governments have received an open letter urging them to not delay the start of the 2022 school year, despite a record surge in Covid cases (pictured Sydney pupils returning to class after four months in lockdown in 2021)
Epidemiologists Catherine Bennett and Fiona Russell, former Australian of the Year Patrick McGorry and Professor of Child Health David Issacs are among the 35 academics, doctors and community leaders who have put their name to the open letter sent ahead of Thursday’s national cabinet.
‘In the third year of the COVID-19 pandemic we now have evidence that it is safe to allow schools to be open for face-to-face learning,’ the letter begins.
‘The national cabinet commitment to re-open schools is at risk, however, and needs to be reaffirmed by every jurisdiction, with measures taken to reassure Australian families that schools are safe to return.’
They argue a delay to return to face to face learning is not a proportionate response with data showing Covid-19 is a mild disease in children and that the overwhelming majority recover without adverse affects.
The letter also states there’s medical case for face-to-face learning to be suspended despite the vaccine rollout for ages 5-11 being launched this week.
The letter warns of ignoring the obligation to deliver the best education outcomes if the return to the classroom is delayed as it greatly disadvantages the least privileged and causes unnecessary anxiety and harm.
‘Children are the ‘lost voices’ of this pandemic,’ it states.
‘The right of children to an education based on in-person learning and healthy social interaction with peers is now one of the highest policy priorities for Australian governments to limit the long-term adverse impact of this pandemic.’
The letter by some of Australia’s leading academic, clinicians and describe students as the forgotten voices of the pandemic (pictured a student returning to school after lockdown)
Concerns were also raised about children’s mental health and increased risk of child abuse, obesity, and delayed social and emotional development.
The authors acknowledge measures such as rapid antigen testing, the wearing of masks and ventilation upgrades need to be implemented to reduce the risk of transmissions in schools and ease parents and teachers’ fears about kids returning to school.
‘Given the relatively low risk posed by schools and in the absence of evidence that these measures will have a substantial effect on transmission, a delayed roll-out of these measures should not delay in-person learning,’ it states.
The letter ends stating Australian children have a fundamental right to high-quality education and the return of face to face learning as soon as possible is in everyone’s best interests.
NSW Premier Dominic Perrottet (pictured with vaccinated children on Monday) has already indicated the start of term one won’t be delayed in NSW
It was compiled after Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk delayed the start of term one by a fortnight until the second week of February.
NSW Premier Dominic Perrottet and Victorian counterpart Daniel Andrews have ruled out a delayed return to the classroom, despite the surge in Omicron cases.
The South Australian government will finalise its school plans this week but has warned to expect disruptions surge to the surge in Covid cases.
The safe reopening of schools will be high on the agenda when the national cabinet meets on Thursday.
The Australian Principals Federation has warned the return to school was ‘not looking like the start we wanted it to be’.
‘I think it’s hinged on high vaccination rates for five- to 11-year-olds and that’s based on people being able to access the vaccine and [being] willing to have their children vaccinated,’ federation president Tina King told The Age.
‘We’ve got to look after people this term because the wounds and the scars of the last two years, and particularly last term, are still raw and open.’
The letter was compiled after Queensland delayed the start of school by two weeks
Read the full letter to governments
Dear leaders of Australian governments,
In the third year of the COVID-19 pandemic we now have evidence that it is safe to allow schools to be open for face-to-face learning. The national cabinet commitment to re-open schools is at risk, however, and needs to be reaffirmed by every jurisdiction, with measures taken to reassure Australian families that schools are safe to return. As such, we call upon all federal, state and territory governments to recommit to the return to in person schooling without delay for term 1 2022. We believe this to be critical for the following reasons:
A delay to return to in-person learning is not a proportionate response, notwithstanding the Omicron outbreak. Our Australian data confirms COVID-19 is a mild disease in children, that the few hospitalisations are short-lived, and that the overwhelming majority of children recover from this virus without adverse effect. There is no medical case for face-to-face learning to be suspended awaiting the vaccination of 5 to 11-year-old children, although all children should be offered access as soon as practical.
A delay to returning to in-person learning ignores the obligation to deliver the best education possible to children, greatly disadvantages the least privileged and causes unnecessary anxiety and harm. For some children, schools are the safest place to be, essential for socialisation and vital to their learning. Children are the ‘lost voices’ of this pandemic. The right of children to an education based on in-person learning and healthy social interaction with peers is now one of the highest policy priorities for Australian governments to limit the long-term adverse impact of this pandemic.
A delay in returning to in-person learning puts children’s mental health at risk, with additional increases in the risk of child abuse, obesity, and delayed social and emotional development. The lifelong impact of this is not known. These issues are more difficult to quantify than COVID-19 case numbers, but they are just as real and demand to be assigned a higher priority given their importance to secure a healthy and prosperous future for communities.
Children and especially adolescents have borne the major mental health burden of the pandemic with a worldwide surge in cases of mental ill health and of life-threatening presentations to emergency departments for suicidal risk and emerging mental illness. The major health impact of COVID-19 for children and young people has been on their mental health. Their educational scaffolding is a key protective factor for their mental health and their future.
At this stage of the pandemic we must acknowledge and follow the principle set by both the World Health Organisation and the United Nations Children’s Fund, that in a pandemic ‘schools must be the last to close and the first to open’.
All teachers should have had an opportunity to be vaccinated against this virus, providing them with very high protection. Teachers are at no higher risk than the general adult population, and it is likely that schools pose no increased risk of transmission compared with the general community even when the virus is circulating at high levels. Opening schools will not materially add to the burden on the health system.
We know that most infections occur within households, and that schools in general reflect community transmission rather than being a key transmission driver. With wide community circulation and all parents, grandparents and high-risk community members having had an opportunity to get vaccinated, the general population will not be at higher risk of severe disease with schools re-opening.
It is sensible to use mitigation measures during this acute phase of the outbreak. Test-to-stay strategies need to be resourced: free rapid antigen testing following documented school exposure should be made available. Workforce planning is critical. We recognise that mitigation measures such as improved ventilation and/or masks may help parents and teachers feel more comfortable with the return to school and that this is an important consideration. However, given the relatively low risk posed by schools and in the absence of evidence that these measures will have a substantial effect on transmission, a delayed roll-out of these measures should not delay in-person learning.
We believe all children in this country have a fundamental right to high-quality education and urge all elected representatives in Australia to join us in reassuring Australia’s parents, teachers and children that it is in everyone’s best interest to restart in-person learning as soon as possible.
David Isaacs, Professor of Child health,
Catherine Bennett, Professor of Epidemiology
Fiona Russell, Professor of Paediatrics and Epidemiology
Patrick McGorry, Professor of Psychiatry
On behalf of the following practitioners, academics and prominent Australians who are signatories to this letter:
Christopher Blyth, Professor of Paediatric Infectious Disease
Robert Booy, Professor of Paediatric Infectious Disease
Asha Bowen, Associate Professor of Paediatric Infectious Disease
Philip Britton, Associate Professor of Paediatric and Child Health
Nicholas Coatsworth, Infectious Disease and Respiratory Physician
David Coghill, Professor of Child Psychiatry
Peter Collignon, Professor of Infectious Disease and Microbiology
Nigel Curtis, Professor of Paediatric Infectious Disease
Margie Danchin, Associate Professor of Paediatrics
Paul Denborough, Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist
Greg Dore, Infectious Disease Physician
Luara Ferracioli, Senior Lecturer, Politics and Philosophy
Sharon Goldfeld, Professor of Paediatrics and Child Health
Vinay Lakra, Associate Professor, Psychiatrist
Frances Kay Lambkin, Professor of Psychology
Tony LaMontagne, Professor of Work, Health and Wellbeing
Ben Marais, Professor of Paediatric Infectious Disease
Iain Martin, Professor of Surgery
Gabriel Metcalf, Chief Executive Officer, Committee for Sydney
Christel Middledorp, Professor of Child and Youth Psychiatry
Peter McIntyre, Professor of Child and Adolescent Health
Megan Mitchell, Former Australian National Children’s Commissioner 2013 – 2020
Elizabeth Pellicano, Professor of Education
Sarath Ragananthan, Professor of Paediatrics
Bruce Robinson, Professor of Medicine
Edward Santow, Professor of Industry, Former Australian Human Rights Commissioner 2016 – 2021
Marc Stears, Professor of Politics
Tim Soutphommasane, Professor of Practice (Sociology and Political Theory), Former Race Discrimination Commissioner 20130-2018
Maree Teesson, Professor of Mental Health
Phoebe Williams, Paediatric Infectious Disease Physician
Ehssan Veiszadeh, deputy CEO, Committee for Sydney
Source: Daily Mail