Australia/July 20, 2022/By: Donna Lu/Source: https://www.theguardian.com/
While masks remain optional in schools nationwide, authorities in several Australian states have strengthened requests for action
The Victorian education department and independent schools have written a letter to parents urging students over the age of eight to wear masks at school.
While masks are not currently mandated for general student populations anywhere in Australia, a letter signed by the heads of the Victorian government, Catholic and independent schools sectors asks students aged eight and over to wear masks during class and if travelling on public transport. The state opposition has seized on the recommendation, labelling it a “mandate by stealth”.
In New South Wales, where students began returning to school this week, authorities are launching a “four-week blitz” of Covid-19 measures including the distribution of more than 9m rapid antigen tests to schools around the state. This comes after a 30% increase in staff absences due to Covid-19 and influenza in term two.
The NSW education department “strongly encouraged” indoor mask wearing for staff and visitors at mainstream schools, and also encouraged mask wearing among students.
Students in Western Australia, the Australian Capital Territory and the Northern Territory also return to school this week. Term three commenced last week for Victorian and Queensland students, while their counterparts in South Australia and Tasmania return to school next week.
Dr Nusrat Homaira, a paediatric respiratory epidemiologist at the University of NSW, said the benefits of children attending school in person outweighed the risks of Covid-19.
“I’m assuming there’s going to be a little bit more transmission as schools open up, but … we’re not where we were in 2020. We have very good antivirals, we have good vaccines, we know what works and what doesn’t.”
“Children still seem to be at a lower risk of severe Covid, and they also are at less risk of acquiring infection compared to adults,” she said. “I think the benefits of sending children to school is much, much higher.
“Covid has already caused a lot of damage in terms of mental heath [and] learning difficulties in our children.”
Last week Victoria’s health minister, Mary-Anne Thomas, rejected a recommendation by the acting chief health officer to reintroduce mask mandates in early childhood and school settings.
“I made a decision based on the advice that I had received that further mandating of masks was not the most effective way to get the message out about the importance of mask wearing,” Thomas said. “We need to empower people to make their own decisions.”
The Queensland premier, Annastacia Palaszczuk, also encouraged students and teachers to wear masks from Monday except where social distancing was possible.
“The best way to slow this wave down is to wear a mask,” she said on Saturday.
Rising Covid infection rates have coincided with the high winter transmission of other respiratory illnesses.
Homaira said it had been “an exceptional season” as the first winter after the easing of strict Covid-19 restrictions.
“Normally we see multiple viruses transmitting during winter – particularly respiratory syncytial virus and influenza, which are the two big viruses not just for children but for the elderly as well,” Homaira said.
She said rhinovirus, one of the main causes of the common cold, usually also circulated throughout the year.
“This year, we have been having a lot of kids coming to the emergency department and into the hospital with respiratory syncytial virus infections,” Homaira said. “If kids get wheezy, their lips turn blue or they have severe respiratory distress, they should be brought to the emergency department.”
Homaira recommended that children with respiratory symptoms be kept at home if possible – “not just for Covid [but] for any respiratory infection – they’re essentially transmitted the same way.”
“Flu is also picking up,” she said. “The flu vaccine has been made available for children and it’s free.”