The World Health Organisation has declared COVID-19 a pandemic and the situation continues to evolve quickly with an increasing number of countries having sustained community transmission.
The NSW Department of Education has been planning and operating in accordance with its pandemic plan to support the safety and wellbeing of staff and students. We are working closely with NSW Health to ensure we have access to the latest advice on how to keep our students, staff and community safe. We are following their guidance.
I know some have called for school closures, and the matter is triggering significant public debate. This and other public health responses to COVID-19 are being considered daily in meetings between Australia’s chief health officers, drawing on advice from the national leaders in epidemic management as well as from the experience with this and previous pandemics.
The Department of Education has received advice from the NSW Chief Health Officer Dr Kerry Chant, following meetings of the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee (AHPPC) which has been considering the issue of school closures in relation to community transmission of COVID-19.
“The Committee’s advice is that pre-emptive closures are not likely to be proportionate or effective as a public health intervention to prevent community transmission of COVID-19 at this time,” Dr Chant said in her letter.
“There is currently limited information on the contribution of children to transmission of COVID-19, with the WHO-China Joint Mission noted the primary role of household transmission and observed that children tended to be infected from adults.”
The committee has highlighted the impact of pre-emptive school closures on care arrangements for children who are not at school, including those that may require care from vulnerable grandparents or who may continue to associate and transmit infection outside of schools.
“Broadly, the health advice on school closures from previous respiratory epidemics shows the costs are often underestimated and the benefits are overestimated,” Dr Chant wrote.
“This may be even more so in relation to COVID-19 as unlike influenza, the impact on otherwise healthy children has been minimal to date.
“School closure is associated with considerable costs. Studies have estimated that around 15% of the workforce and 30% of the healthcare workforce may need to take time off work to care for children. While this effect could be mitigated somewhat, it is likely that this burden will still be significant and will fall disproportionately on those in casual or tenuous work circumstances.
“For pre-emptive school closures to be effective, prolonged closure is required and it would be unclear when they could be re-opened. If there were still a large pool of susceptible students when schools are re-opened, there would be likely to be re-emergence of transmission in the community.
“School closures may still be considered late in the outbreak in anticipation of a peak in infection rates, for a shorter period of time. Short term reactive school closures may also be warranted to allow cleaning and contact tracing to occur.”
NSW Education is in discussion with NSW Health throughout every day. At this point, case numbers and transmission of the virus in NSW remains low compared to other countries. If or when school closures become the best way to manage the spread of the virus in NSW, then we are ready to do so.
We have advised schools on strategies to reduce transmission including personal hygiene measures, physical distancing, cancelling assemblies and excursions.
The situation is evolving quickly and we will continue to respond to the advice from NSW Health as we receive it. In the meantime, our schools provide an essential service that enable our healthcare and other essential workers to fulfil their roles.