Mon. May 23rd, 2022

Chief Minister of Northern Territory Michael Gunner has announced new measures designed to keep schools running while limiting the spread of the Omicron variant among students.

“We can not completely eliminate the risk of COVID,” he said at a news conference Friday.

“It’s here, and we live with it. Of course it will be in some of our schools, too. There’s just no one around it. Our plan is to make sure it happens as little as possible.”

So what’s the plan?

Since COVID-19 can be easily dispersed through the air, the first layer of protection is to have proper air ventilation in the classrooms.

Sir. Gunner said air-conditioning units at all of the state’s state schools had been audited to ensure they provided adequate circulation.

He said 500 portable air purifiers would be delivered to schools that did not have central air conditioning, especially schools in remote areas.

Which students should wear face masks?

Students aged eight and older are strongly encouraged to wear face masks in classrooms and in other indoor school environments.

Sir. Gunner said it included all students in years three and up.

“It will not be compulsory for our primary school students, but it is strongly encouraged in addition to all the other measures we have in place,” Mr Gunner said.

An indoor mask mandate remains in place for people ages 12 and older, meaning middle and senior school students must continue to wear face masks indoors while on campus.

Who should be vaccinated?

As part of the NT’s widespread vaccine mandate, all teachers and school members must be fully vaccinated in order to return to work.

From the beginning of the first semester, all students aged five and over will be encouraged to receive their first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine.

“The more students who are vaccinated, the safer our schools will be,” Mr Gunner said.

So far, 84 percent of Territory children ages 12 to 15 had received at least one stab, and 71 percent had received another shot, Gunner said.

Nearly a quarter of children ages five to 11 had received their first dose, he said.

What are the test rules for teachers?

Distance school staff will be provided with three rapid antigen tests (RATs) the week before returning to remote communities.

They have to take the first test on the day they have to travel to the community and they can only leave if they give a negative result.

They must then take another test on day three and again on day six.

“This is an additional security measure that recognizes the vulnerability of some of our remote communities,” Mr Gunner said.

A drone photo of rows of houses in a remote community in the northern territory
Teachers in remote areas such as Yarralin, located about 700 km south of Darwin, need to take rapid antigen tests.(ABC News: Hamish Harty)

From the beginning of the first semester, all other public school staff will be offered three quick antigen tests per week for use as needed.

Unlike distance school staff, it will not be mandatory for public school teachers to test themselves on certain days.

The tests will simply be available for use when appropriate.

What happens if a student or teacher tests positive for COVID-19?

Students or school staff who test positive for coronavirus must isolate themselves for seven days according to the requirement for all territories.

“Whether you are a student or a teacher, a positive result means seven days at home,” Mr Gunner said.

Each school is required to have a COVID safety advisor and a school preparedness action plan, which covers procedures for handling a positive case on the school premises as well as informing families, carers and the school community.

Sir. Gunner said all parents would be notified when a positive case was discovered at school and if their child was in close contact.

Elementary school students who are close contacts do not have to take a quick antigen test and they can keep coming to school as long as they have no symptoms.

“Recent health advice indicates that rapid testing is not as sensitive for asymptomatic young children,” Mr Gunner said.

It is up to parents to monitor their child’s symptoms closely and keep their child at home and have them tested if they start to get sick.

This rule also applies to children attending day care centers and kindergartens.

Middle and senior school students who are close contacts in a case can keep going to school as long as they have no symptoms.

However, they will be required to take a daily rapid antigen test each morning before school starts in the following week.

The same rules apply to students who are close contacts to a COVID-positive household member.

Schools will provide rapid antigen testing to parents to provide for their children, Mr Gunner said.

Schools will also have distance learning packages and online learning programs available for students who need to be temporarily isolated, either because they have COVID-19 or because their parent or caregiver wants to keep them at home.

“If you are concerned and you want to keep your child away from school for a short period of time, we will continue to support their learning at home as best we can,” Mr Gunner said.

Teachers who are close contacts but are not symptomatic can continue to teach in the school under the following conditions:

  • Their work is considered significant at that time
  • They continue to be asymptomatic
  • They take a daily rapid antigen test for seven days.

Sir. Gunner said individual schools could determine if an employee was considered “essential” at any given time.

He said the education department had registered teachers on stand-by to fill staff when needed during the semester.

The new changes only apply to public schools.

Gunner said, however, that the NT government consulted with churches and non-state schools

The new COVID-19 initiatives will be assessed after the first four weeks of the first semester.

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