This time next month, hundreds of thousands of students in New South Wales and Victoria will be back in school after months of homeschooling.
But another country’s return to face-to-face learning has seen a big increase in children being kept at home because of COVID-19.
In England, which reopened schools in early September, the number of COVID-related absences from students rose from 122,000 to 204,000 in two weeks.
The data has made headlines – so are there any lessons for Australia?
What does the data say?
According to data released by the UK government on Tuesday, the number of absences associated with COVID-19 increased between 16 September and 30 September.
As of September 30, an estimated 204,000 students, or 2.5 per cent of all primary school students in England, were away from school for COVID-related reasons.
It included 102,000 students with a confirmed case of COVID-19 and 84,000 with a presumed case. The remaining 18,000 children were away for other reasons, including restrictions or isolation.
Infectious disease expert Robert Booy said disease-based absence occurred anyway, regardless of COVID-19.
“You usually get increased absenteeism when school goes back because viruses of many kinds go around,” Professor Booy said.
What can this mean for schools in Australia?
School reopening and early childhood settings are likely to lead to a greater number of cases among people who are unvaccinated, according to Fiona Russell, a pediatrician and epidemiologist at the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute in Melbourne.
Therefore, she said that each state and territory should have plans in place to reduce transmission in schools.
“Multilayer school-restrictive measures, including vaccination of teens, are really important in preventing outbreaks and infections in school,” she said.
Professor Russell also pointed out that the UK had “minimal mitigation measures” in place when schools went back and recently removed mandatory masks.
“The UK has only just started vaccinating 12- to 15-year-olds, so vaccinating this age group will reduce infections in high schools,” she said.
Zoë Hyde, an epidemiologist at the University of Western Australia and a member of the independent scientific group OzSAGE, said the UK was “a warning of what not to do in schools”.
“They removed almost all mitigating measures such as masks and physical distance, and the results have been very predictable,” she said.
“The spread of COVID-19 has been violent in schools, which has led to high levels of infection in children and also disrupted education. It is the worst of both worlds.”
How will measures in Australian schools differ from those in the UK?
When Victoria and NSW return to school, masks will be mandatory for all school staff and older students and are recommended indoors for primary school children.
Victoria recently unveiled further measures to reduce transmission when schools return, including widespread roll-out of air purifiers and mandatory vaccinations for all staff.
Professor Russell said other states should adopt similar strategies.
“Other states and territories should aim to have very high levels of staff vaccinated and all age groups vaccinated, prioritizing the areas with the highest risk of outbreaks, as we have seen in Sydney and Melbourne,” she said.
Detection and management of outbreaks in schools should also become more effective as Victoria and New South Wales experienced more outbreaks in schools, Professor Russell said.
It was important to ensure that everyone eligible for vaccinations got them, especially parents and eligible household contacts for students, Professor Russell said.
Most children in the age group of 12 to 15 were not eligible for vaccinations when British pupils went back to school. In Australia, this age group has been approved for weeks.
Until younger children were eligible for vaccinations, other measures to protect them from COVID-19 should include the use of HEPA air filters in classrooms and ensuring that all teachers and students wear masks, Dr Hyde said.
Should parents be concerned about UK data?
Experts say it is important to look at the bigger picture of admissions and admissions to intensive care rather than focusing on daily cases.
Pediatric Infectious Diseases Specialist Ben Marais of The Children’s Hospital in Westmead, western Sydney, said an increase in the number of reported cases in children was not necessarily a cause for concern.
“High numbers of cases do not mean that many children are suffering,” he said.
High rates of infection among other age groups or among vulnerable populations can be a problem as they are more likely to overload the health care system.
Because most children infected with COVID-19 experienced only mild symptoms, it was unlikely that high rates of infection among school children would burden hospitals significantly, Professor Marais said.
Professor Booy agreed that data on serious illness in children were most important.
“What we need to monitor closely are admissions and admissions to intensive care,” he said.
He said that if COVID-19 was transmitted within schools, children could transmit it to those they lived with at home, but it should not be a concern if the vaccination rate among the adult population was high.
Therefore, one of the most important things Australia could learn from the UK was that anyone who could be vaccinated should do so, Professor Russell said.
“The higher the coverage in society, the fewer cases in general – and with low societal transfer, that is what will keep schools open and children safe,” she said.
Professor Marais said having children who transmitted the virus to adults “was definitely an option”, but pointed out that schools had not been shown to amplify the transmission of COVID-19 specifically.
He argued that children should not be given a moral responsibility to keep the virus out of their homes.
“The Delta variant is going to reach every single home anyway,” he said.
“You can never blame a child for bringing an infection home.”
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