23 March 2020

COVID-19 and school closures - if not now, when?

| Elka Wood
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School's out for Mumbulla School

Mumbulla School in Bega closed its doors last Wednesday. Photo: Mumbulla School Facebook.

It’s the question on everyone’s lips: when will schools close in response to the virus which puts our elderly population and those with low immunity at risk?

Today, NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian is urging parents to keep their children at home if possible but no official shutdown has been announced.

Last week, Mumbulla School for Rudolf Steiner Education, a small school in Bega with around 200 students, was among the first schools to voluntarily close, with Education Manager Reagan White saying that the school wants to be proactive, not reactive in their response to the current pandemic.

“Although the advice from both the Department of Health and the Association of Independent Schools NSW is to keep schools open, we have assessed the risk for our school context as too great to remain open any longer. We feel it necessary to prioritise the health and welfare of our staff and students,” she says.

Former president of the Australian Medical Association and former Independent MP Dr Kerryn Phelps says the government will have to “look at the closure of schools and universities for several weeks”.

“Epidemiologists have told us that to be effective, school closures have to be done early. Yes, it will be inconvenient, but so is being on life support in ICU,” she says.

Dr Phelps says that Singapore has reportedly managed the spread of the virus while keeping schools open but stresses that in Singapore, measures were taken early and taken seriously.

“Children had their temperatures checked on arrival at the school gate and were sent home if they had a fever or symptoms.

“They had widespread testing with strict isolation of confirmed cases. Once past the school gates, children were expected to wash their hands with soap and water.”

Ms White says many of her staff are in a high-risk category if they contracted COVID-19, which caused the school to act early.

“Contracting COVID-19 could be life-threatening to these teachers or an immediate family member and if we were to ask these at-risk teachers to remain at home; that is, to follow current government recommendations for social distancing, then we would struggle to find relief teachers to replace them.”

The school is developing a remote learning-plan and a small number of teachers will be on-site throughout the closure to help the children of healthcare workers, emergency service providers and teachers who are expected to work face-to-face with their remote learning.

According to Dr Phelps and other medical professionals, Mumbualla School has acted in a timely way and it’s past time state schools follow their lead.

“Schools have been told to stay open and impose social distancing of 1.5 metres, which is completely impractical,” Dr Phelps says.

“Have they met a group of six-year-olds?”

The social and economic repercussions of closing all schools are huge and have a flow-on effect as many parents are unable to work while their children are at home. This situation highlights the stress that families are under and how few options many parents have for help with childcare.

“We realise that the decision to close the school will be inconvenient for many families, this is not a decision that we have taken lightly, but it is one that we believe is the safest response for our whole community,” Ms White says.

Mumbulla School expects to remain closed until at least the beginning of Term 2 and longer if necessary, with the situation being reviewed on a daily basis as new advice and/or information comes to hand.

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Nienke Haantjens12:21 pm 28 Mar 20

thanks Elka

Shelley Simpson11:26 pm 23 Mar 20

Please close schools now.
As a Learning support assistant of 10 years I have found that germs run wild at schools. I will not be returning to work until term 2 depending on the outcome.
I am not prepared to bring the virus back to my little town of Wyndham. We have all been through enough with the recent fires.

Nienke Haantjens7:02 pm 23 Mar 20

thought provoking article again, thank you Elka

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