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Child health experts are calling for schools to be seen as essential services and prioritised to stay open during the COVID-19 pandemic, to ensure equity and lessen the adverse social and educational effects of school closures on Australian children.
A review of Australian and international research published in the Journal of Paediatrics and Child Health has confirmed SARS-CoV-2 outbreaks can be suppressed even when schools remain open by implementing strict public health strategies.
Evidence from two large studies in New South Wales (NSW) and Victoria during 2020 has demonstrated that the number of COVID-19 cases identified in those attending schools and early childhood and education care (ECEC) settings is proportionate to the rate and geographical location of community transmission. In Australia, most SARS-CoV-2 instances in schools were single cases (77 per cent in NSW and 67 per cent in Victoria); of those that did progress to an outbreak, more than 90 per cent involved fewer than 10 cases.
The greatest impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on children and adolescents, especially for the most disadvantaged, has been the closure of educational facilities. School closures create an education gap, with children from lower socioeconomic backgrounds less likely to have access to online classes than their peers from higher socioeconomic backgrounds, especially in low- and middle-income settings.
The authors have said that implementation of public health mitigation strategies, including effective testing, tracing and isolation of contacts, means schools and ECECs can be safe, not drivers of transmission.
Keeping schools open also means maintaining capacity for widespread testing and the ability for public health officials to respond to school cases. To do this, the authors recommend that all Australian states and territories establish a national strategy and commitment to keeping schools open with agreed systems and adequate funding in place to measure its effectiveness, especially as SARS-CoV-2 variants emerge.
The research review was a collaboration between the National Centre for Immunisation Research and Surveillance (NCIRS), Murdoch Children’s Research Institute (MCRI) and Telethon Kids Institute (TKI).
Lead author Dr Archana Koirala from NCIRS and the University of Sydney said, “Virus will get introduced into schools and ECECs when it is circulating in the community. As school closures have a wide-ranging impact on students’ well-being and health, including broad psychosocial and educational effects, and there are growing data that children and schools are not key drivers of infection, keeping schools and ECECs open must remain a priority during further outbreaks. This is particularly critical as we continue to manage the next phase of the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Professor Fiona Russell, co-author from the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute and the University of Melbourne, said, “School closures negatively impact the well-being, psychosocial aspects and education of students; have economic costs to families; and should be avoided wherever possible. Teachers and school staff should also be prioritised for COVID-19 vaccines, especially in settings with higher incidence of COVID-19.”
The authors recommend a cyclical review of the recommendations every 6–12 months depending on the Australian epidemic, new global evidence and vaccination programs.
Read the full study here
View COVID-19: Transmission in educational settings in NSW reports here
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