Dear leaders of Australian governments,
In the third year of the COVID-19 pandemic we now have evidence that it is safe to allow schools to be open for face-to-face learning. The national cabinet commitment to re-open schools is at risk, however, and needs to be reaffirmed by every jurisdiction, with measures taken to reassure Australian families that schools are safe to return. As such, we call upon all federal, state and territory governments to recommit to the return to in person schooling without delay for term 1 2022. We believe this to be critical for the following reasons:
A delay to return to in-person learning is not a proportionate response, notwithstanding the Omicron outbreak. Our Australian data confirms COVID-19 is a mild disease in children, that the few hospitalisations are short-lived, and that the overwhelming majority of children recover from this virus without adverse effect. There is no medical case for face-to-face learning to be suspended awaiting the vaccination of 5 to 11-year-old children, although all children should be offered access as soon as practical.
A delay to returning to in-person learning ignores the obligation to deliver the best education possible to children, greatly disadvantages the least privileged and causes unnecessary anxiety and harm. For some children, schools are the safest place to be, essential for socialisation and vital to their learning. Children are the ‘lost voices’ of this pandemic. The right of children to an education based on in-person learning and healthy social interaction with peers is now one of the highest policy priorities for Australian governments to limit the long-term adverse impact of this pandemic.
A delay in returning to in-person learning puts children’s mental health at risk, with additional increases in the risk of child abuse, obesity, and delayed social and emotional development. The lifelong impact of this is not known. These issues are more difficult to quantify than COVID-19 case numbers, but they are just as real and demand to be assigned a higher priority given their importance to secure a healthy and prosperous future for communities.
Children and especially adolescents have borne the major mental health burden of the pandemic with a worldwide surge in cases of mental ill health and of life-threatening presentations to emergency departments for suicidal risk and emerging mental illness. The major health impact of COVID-19 for children and young people has been on their mental health. Their educational scaffolding is a key protective factor for their mental health and their future.
At this stage of the pandemic we must acknowledge and follow the principle set by both the World Health Organisation and the United Nations Children’s Fund, that in a pandemic ‘schools must be the last to close and the first to open’.
All teachers should have had an opportunity to be vaccinated against this virus, providing them with very high protection. Teachers are at no higher risk than the general adult population, and it is likely that schools pose no increased risk of transmission compared with the general community even when the virus is circulating at high levels. Opening schools will not materially add to the burden on the health system.
We know that most infections occur within households, and that schools in general reflect community transmission rather than being a key transmission driver. With wide community circulation and all parents, grandparents and high-risk community members having had an opportunity to get vaccinated, the general population will not be at higher risk of severe disease with schools re-opening.
It is sensible to use mitigation measures during this acute phase of the outbreak. Test-to-stay strategies need to be resourced: free rapid antigen testing following documented school exposure should be made available. Workforce planning is critical. We recognise that mitigation measures such as improved ventilation and/or masks may help parents and teachers feel more comfortable with the return to school and that this is an important consideration. However, given the relatively low risk posed by schools and in the absence of evidence that these measures will have a substantial effect on transmission, a delayed roll-out of these measures should not delay in-person learning.
We believe all children in this country have a fundamental right to high-quality education and urge all elected representatives in Australia to join us in reassuring Australia’s parents, teachers and children that it is in everyone’s best interest to restart in-person learning as soon as possible.
David Isaacs, Professor of Child health,
Catherine Bennett, Professor of Epidemiology
Fiona Russell, Professor of Paediatrics and Epidemiology
Patrick McGorry, Professor of Psychiatry
On behalf of the following practitioners, academics and prominent Australians who are signatories to this letter:
Christopher Blyth, Professor of Paediatric Infectious Disease
Robert Booy, Professor of Paediatric Infectious Disease
Asha Bowen, Associate Professor of Paediatric Infectious Disease
Philip Britton, Associate Professor of Paediatric and Child Health
Nicholas Coatsworth, Infectious Disease and Respiratory Physician
David Coghill, Professor of Child Psychiatry
Peter Collignon, Professor of Infectious Disease and Microbiology
Nigel Curtis, Professor of Paediatric Infectious Disease
Margie Danchin, Associate Professor of Paediatrics
Paul Denborough, Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist
Greg Dore, Infectious Disease Physician
Luara Ferracioli, Senior Lecturer, Politics and Philosophy
Sharon Goldfeld, Professor of Paediatrics and Child Health
Vinay Lakra, Associate Professor, Psychiatrist
Frances Kay Lambkin, Professor of Psychology
Tony LaMontagne, Professor of Work, Health and Wellbeing
Ben Marais, Professor of Paediatric Infectious Disease
Iain Martin, Professor of Surgery
Gabriel Metcalf, Chief Executive Officer, Committee for Sydney
Christel Middledorp, Professor of Child and Youth Psychiatry
Peter McIntyre, Professor of Child and Adolescent Health
Megan Mitchell, Former Australian National Children’s Commissioner 2013 – 2020
Elizabeth Pellicano, Professor of Education
Sarath Ragananthan, Professor of Paediatrics
Bruce Robinson, Professor of Medicine
Edward Santow, Professor of Industry, Former Australian Human Rights Commissioner 2016 – 2021
Marc Stears, Professor of Politics
Tim Soutphommasane, Professor of Practice (Sociology and Political Theory), Former Race Discrimination Commissioner 20130-2018
Maree Teesson, Professor of Mental Health
Phoebe Williams, Paediatric Infectious Disease Physician
Ehssan Veiszadeh, deputy CEO, Committee for Sydney