Schools to become ‘super-spreading’ sites as most young kids set to return unvaccinated, experts say

Educators are bracing for another "extremely difficult" year as many students return to school without sufficient protection against COVID. 

Key points:

  • The Department of Health says children will have the opportunity to get vaccinated before school, but experts say it can take weeks to build up immunity
  • The Australian Primary Principals Association says the sector will face severe staff shortages, which can compromise teaching outcomes
  • It says outdoor learning is not a viable long-term option

From next week, children aged five to 11 years can get the vaccine, but most will have to start school without the protection of two doses.

"With children, the vaccination schedule will be eight weeks apart, so what that means is that only some children would have had access to vaccination before they return to school," University of Sydney clinical epidemiologist Angela Webster said.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison yesterday confirmed students would return to school as planned.

The Federal Department of Health said the government aimed to offer all children in the five-11-years age group "the opportunity to get a vaccine prior to school returning".

But the World Health Organisation member and Melbourne University epidemiologist Mary-Louise McLaws said with the vaccination effort starting less than a month before school resumes, many children won't have had enough time to build up resistance to the virus.

"Most people who get the second dose still need a week or two to develop really good antibody levels," Professor McLaws said.

"I don't think we're ready for children to go to school yet."

Catch up on the main COVID-19 news from January 5 with a look back at our blog The Department of Health aims to offer all children in the five to 11 age group "the opportunity to get a vaccine prior to school returning".(Shutterstock: James Jiao)Schools likely to become 'super-spreading' hubs

The Federal Health Department did not say how many children in the five-11-year age group are booked in for a vaccine.

Most states did not have the data available, but Queensland Health said 14,912 children in the age group had booked in, although it did not know what percentage of the total that formed.

ACT Health Directorate said government clinics had taken about 9,700 bookings for the age group, which is more than 20 per cent of the eligible children, but that figure does not include the bookings made with GPs and pharmacists.

The breakdown below shows state and territory efforts to vaccinate 12-15-year-olds.

Given that the Omicron variant appears more infectious than Delta, and children have shown throughout the pandemic to carry and spread the virus, experts predict school settings will likely become "super-spreading" environments.

"There could be some delay in getting them back to school because otherwise school gatherings of children and their parents have the potential to be another super-spreading event," Professor McLaws said.

Experts are still learning about the recently emerged Omicron variant, but exposure to the original strain and Delta variant has shown many children can be "completely asymptomatic" to the virus.

Professor McLaws said it was hard to tell how children were responding to Omicron because state and territory governments gave "very poor data on the breakdown of age by Delta or Omicron".

"It's very difficult to say what the risk is," she said.

"Governments aren't telling us enough."

Should students return to school?

The Australian Primary Principals Association says 'yes', although it will be challenging.

President Malcolm Elliott said like many workplace settings, schools across the country would be facing severe staff shortages.

He said schools had already lost "a small number of teachers" who had declined to be vaccinated.

"And then, on the other hand, we've got the risk of infection spreading amongst teachers," he said.

He said absent teachers in most schools could be covered to "some extent" for up to five days — anything beyond that becomes too disruptive.

Educators want students to have access to rapid antigen tests.(AAP: Bianca De Marchi )

"The school starts to become unviable in the delivery of its core purpose, which is the education for the children," he said.

He said schools were confused as to how they could ensure students were virus-free, when there was a nationwide shortage of rapid antigen tests.

"We have to be absolutely sure that children and teachers can access rapid antigen tests. If they're not available, then I can't see how this is going to work," he said.

The Department of Education, Skills and Employment said in a statement: "State and territory education authorities are responsible for the administration and operation of schools, including decisions around responding to COVID-19 at a local level."

Schools mitigating risk

Mr Elliott said many schools had made "significant investment" in improving ventilation.

"We're also talking about very practical things like opening windows and doors and making sure that there is that air movement," he said.

"This seems to be an important component of what we're going to do."

Outdoor classrooms, however, are not a viable option.

"It's unrealistic to expect too much teaching to go outdoors. A lot of our learning really needs to be in spaces where there's good hearing and where there's good sight as well," he said.

Professor Webster said if children were able, they should adhere to all hygiene measures adults do, like wearing a mask and sanitising as frequently as possible.

Tasmanian Premier Peter Gutwein in November last year flagged the state could delay the start of the school year, but later backtracked from the statement.

Mr Elliott said starting school later could be worth it, if it meant more children would return fully vaccinated.

"That's a better outcome probably than having lots of children infected," he said.

And if all else failed, Mr Elliott said many schools had already online learning "up their sleeves" from previous outbreaks.

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