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Twice-weekly rapid tests, mandatory masks and booster shots for teachers are crucial to both states’ near-identical plans
New South Wales and Victoria have announced near-identical plans to slow the spread of Covid as students return to classrooms next week with both states relying on rapid antigen tests (RATs) in the first month.
The NSW premier, Dominic Perrottet, and the Victorian premier, Daniel Andrews, outlined their state plans on Sunday acknowledging they had collaborated so the two biggest jurisdictions were in sync.
The leaders agreed that getting students back into the classroom after two years of disrupted learning was a priority despite the Omicron wave sweeping across Australia.
Perrottet said that some students had spent a quarter of their schooling at home.
“What is most important about this approach is that it allows students to enjoy all aspects of their schooling in a safe and sensible way,” he said.
Here we outline how the NSW and Victoria plans are similar, where they differ, and what we are still waiting to learn.
What is the same?
Twice-weekly testing with RATs
Both states will provide staff and students with enough rapid antigen tests to facilitate twice-weekly surveillance testing during the first four weeks of term one.
In NSW, Perrottet announced the state government would provide more than 12m RATs to over 3,150 government and non-government schools and also early childhood centre staff.
Schools should receive the first 6m tests by Wednesday ready to be distributed to parents.
In Victoria, Andrews said a total 14m RATs would be delivered across the coming weeks. He said 6.6m tests will be at school by the time classes start back next week.
In contrast to NSW, Andrews said that there will also be enough RATs to allow students and staff at specialist schools to test for the virus every day to better protect medically vulnerable children against severe illness.
Andrews warned that there will be cases in schools but he said surveillance testing was about “finding as many cases as we can and shutting down those chains of transmission”.
“We have to get schools back. Once they get back, given how much Omicron is in the community, there will be cases,” the Victorian premier said.
No contact tracing
Schools will no longer close in NSW or Victoria if a student tests positive for the virus – and there will be no contact tracing for students or staff.
The Victorian deputy premier, James Merlino, told reporters “the approach in schools and kindergartens will be in line with any communicable disease” – a sentiment echoed by his NSW counterparts.
Parents of children who test positive for Covid in NSW or Victoria will need to keep the child at home, let the school know, and report the case to their state health authority.
It will then be up to schools to contact other parents to let them know there has been a positive case in the school community and to monitor their child for symptoms.
The NSW chief health officer, Dr Kerry Chant, appeared to step beyond her government’s official advice, warning parents not to send their symptomatic children to school even if they have tested negative for Covid-19 on a rapid antigen test.
“Even if they have a negative test on the first day, please keep them home and do a repeat test. Only send them back if there is an alternate diagnosis,” she said on Sunday.
Both states on Sunday suggested that school events like assemblies, sport and excursions will be allowed to go ahead with Covid-safe plans.
How do the NSW and Victoria plans differ?
Masks will be mandatory for high school staff and students in both states. The two states differ, though, when it comes to masks in primary school.
In Victoria, masks will also be mandatory for students in grade three and above and highly recommended for those in prep, grade one and grade two.
In NSW masks will just be recommended for primary school students.
Booster shots for teachers
A third Covid vaccine dose will be compulsory for school staff in Victoria.
Merlino announced on Sunday that Victorian school and early childhood staff will be required to get a booster shot by 25 February or within three months and two weeks of their second jab.
Merlino said he thought the workforce would “enthusiastically respond” to the new mandate given that 99.7% of staff were double-vaccinated by the end of term four in 2021.
In NSW, Perrottet said last week that state education department school-based staff would be required to have a booster shot. But a spokesperson for the education minister, Sarah Mitchell, told the Guardian on Sunday the government was still working with NSW Health to update the health orders. They noted staff would be given sufficient time to comply with the changes.
Air purifiers and outdoor learning
Both state governments are upping the number of air purifiers in schools.
The NSW state government will distribute about 20,000 air purifiers to schools while Victoria is providing 51,000.
Merlino said the Victorian government was focused on providing purifiers to high-risk settings with poor ventilation, like music rooms, staff rooms and indoor canteens.
He didn’t shy away from flagging that “no other jurisdiction is rolling out our purifiers as we are here in Victoria”.
Merlino said that some classes could be moved outdoors, especially during the warmer months. He said more than 1,800 schools applied for a government shade cloth grant, noting that construction had already begun at more than 300 schools.
What are we still in the dark about?
Both state governments flagged that staff shortages would be one of the biggest challenges when students returned to the classroom, as teachers test positive for the virus or need to stay home to care for cases or close contacts.
State leaders said that, in addition to schools’ casual teaching workforces, they would draw upon retired teaching staff, final-year teaching students at university, departmental staff, and school principals and vice-principals to keep classrooms open.
Merlino said that “remote learning is an absolute last resort” and classrooms would only close down due to staff shortages “for the shortest period of time [and] only localised to particular schools”.
Will this be enough?
The president of the NSW Teachers’ Association, Angelo Gavrielatos, said the state government should be doing more to protect staff as they returned to school.
“With respect to rapid antigen testing, we support the use of those tests twice a week in what is described as a surveillance approach,” Gavrielatos said, but he questioned whether more RATs could be needed for additional testing each week.
Gavrielatos also argued that the NSW government should make mask-wearing a requirement for anyone in schools in indoor settings. He said the teachers’ association would push for the provision of high-quality masks such as P2 masks.
And he warned against forcing staff to return to work if they were close contacts.
“Any suggestion that staff would be directed to return to work when they are close contacts is quite frankly beyond comprehension because all that will do is increase risk rather than mitigate against risk,” he said.
“It is not practical because those staff that are close contacts … will invariably be caring for other members of their household. These are not practical [measures] and quite frankly not supported.”
Both NSW and Victoria will allow teachers to attend school even if they are close contacts of a known case so long as they produce a daily negative RAT.
What are other states doing?
We are yet to hear if other states are modifying their back-to-school plans in light of the Omicron variant and high rates of community transmission.
The Queensland health minister, Yvette D’Ath, on Sunday ruled out rapid antigen testing school students twice a week. Queensland has delayed term one by a fortnight.
D’Ath said there was no national health advice for twice-weekly RATs and it was “not a comfortable test at the best of times”. Rapid test supplies were also in short supply in Queensland, the minister said.
“We believe that those tests are best focused in the areas where we need them the most, such as ... being able to get hold of them for critical essential workers, aged care and health.”