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Prime Minister announces schools will stay open

The Prime Minister and the Chief Medical Officer have announced that Australian schools will remain open based on health advice.

LIVE: PM Scott Morrison on COVID-19

Prime Minister Scott Morrison is addressing the media on the latest developments of coronavirus in Australia.Posted by ABC News on Tuesday, 17 March 2020

The announcement was made at a media conference in Canberra today. The following is an ABC Online transcript of comments made in relation to schools.

Chief Medical Officer Dr Brendan Murphy

“This is quite different to influenza and other respiratory diseases which have quite severe disease sometimes in children. We know that even in influenza, school closures are a controversial issue. We believe very strongly that it’s in the best interest of our children and the nation at this time to keep schools open.

“There may be occasions when there’s a big outbreak in a community that some local school closures might be necessary. But at this time, across the community, our view is that schools should stay open.

“Now, there obviously are measures that we can take to reduce potential transmission in schools. It’s interesting in China that again, most of the children infected were reported as having picked up the virus from adults in their household. But we don’t know whether children may be a vector of asymptomatic or transmission with low levels of symptoms.

“So we need to make sure that our schools are made as safe as possible. We need to make sure that no sick child goes to school. We need to make sure that no sick teacher goes to school.

“We need to try and avoid large assemblies and other gatherings at schools. We know also that it’s not really possible for children in a classroom to keep 1.5 metres apart from each other, and we know that we’ve got to be practical about that. But schools should practise very good hand hygiene, too. Very hard to do in a school, but we can trust our teachers to do it. Children should be washing their hands regularly, particularly when they’re eating and particularly when they’re touching common areas.”

Prime Minister Scott Morrison

“The health advice is that schools should remain open. That is the health advice. Interestingly, this is also what Singapore has done. Singapore has been one of the more successful countries. In Singapore, the schools are open. In Singapore they have been quite effective in managing and limiting the transmission of this virus in that country.

“The health advice here, supported by all the premiers, all the chief ministers and my Government is that schools should remain open.

“There are a number of reasons for this. The first one is that the virus operates very differently amongst younger people. It has a different manifestation amongst younger people and that presents a very different health challenge to the broader population.

In terms of the health and welfare of our children, many of us here are parents and obviously we are concerned about the health of our kids and the health advice that I’m happy to follow for my kids, for Jenny and my kids, is the same health advice I am asking all other parents around the country to follow.

“We all love our kids and there is nothing we wouldn’t do for them. I am telling you that, as a father, I’m happy for my kids to go to school.

“There is only one reason your kids shouldn’t be going to school and that is if they are unwell. As parents, you are in the best position to know if your children are unwell. Don’t leave it to the teacher to work that out when they arrive.”

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Health and hygiene advice to schools

The department has provided advice to schools on health and hygiene practices in schools to limit the spread of germs, including viruses, in our school communities.

A mother and daughter wash their hands with soap.
Image: It’s important that our schools maintain good hand-washing routines for students and staff.

Cleaning and hygiene actions

  • Enhanced cleaning will take place in all schools from 18 March 2020.
  • We will continue to be in regular contact with all principals to understand current levels of supplies of soap and hygiene products.
  • All schools will receive additional provisions of soap and hygiene supplies, such as hand sanitiser.

Tidy surfaces for effective cleaning

To allow effective cleaning in our schools, we have asked staff to tidy workspaces and high traffic surfaces in learning spaces and staff areas.

  • Store all loose items off the floor level (where possible), including around desks and in non-teaching spaces.
  • Desks, worktables, and work benches must be clear of all paper, resources, equipment etc. This includes non-teaching spaces. Items such as telephones, computer equipment are not considered as obstructions and do not need to be removed.
  • All loose student work, art materials and resources that are normally stored on furniture in learning spaces should be stored in student tote trays and storage cupboards.
  • All sinks, troughs and workbenches in industrial arts and lab areas need to be clear of materials, resources and hazards to ensure cleaners can access these spaces.
  • Staffrooms – clear away all crockery, resources (including books and papers) and any food materials from all surfaces.

Help manage the spread of the virus

  • Wash your hands regularly and thoroughly.
  • Sneeze into your elbow or a tissue, disposing of the tissue straight away and then washing your hands.
  • Stay home if you are unwell and in schools, send home staff or students who show signs of being unwell through the day.
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A frontline look at social distancing in schools

Today I visited Leichhardt Public School to see firsthand how our staff and students are coping with the new social distancing measures to control the COVID-19 virus.

The principal, Chris Beunen, told me the school has made some drastic changes to school drop-off routines, staggered lunch times to minimise the number of students in the playground at the same time, and a big focus on hygiene. Great to hear that students are taking those hygiene messages back home, too

We’re minimising the number of students in the playground at any point in time and maintaining a sense of normality so they’re enjoying coming to school, – Tim told me.

Schools are an essential service and our advice from health authorities is that schools should still stay open.

I want to thank all our school staff who really are at the frontline, working with students and parents during these unprecedented times.

You’re doing remarkable work at this time of great national effort to help secure the health and wellbeing of our country.

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Health advice on school closures

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 ChantExternal link, 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.