School starts in two weeks – here’s what we know about Covid safety plans for Australian students

·6-min read
<span>Photograph: Xinhua/Rex/Shutterstock</span>
Photograph: Xinhua/Rex/Shutterstock

Term one is due to start in two weeks – except in Queensland and South Australia where it’s been delayed – but Australia is yet to release a national plan on how the return to school will be managed. This is what we know so far.

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When will we know what is going on?

Hopefully on Thursday.

The prime minister, Scott Morrison, announced a national framework for managing Covid in schools after the national cabinet meeting last week, which set out that education and early childcare centres were essential and should be the first services to open and the last to close in any outbreak situation.

Morrison also announced that education and early childcare workers were among those essential workers no longer required to isolate for six days if they were a close contact and could instead return to work after a negative test.

Related: Australian air quality standards needed to combat Covid, experts say

The actual plan – or “practical implementation of the framework” – is being developed by state and territory governments and should be finalised at the national cabinet meeting on 20 January.

Guardian Australia contacted all state and territory education departments and was told their Covid response frameworks would be released once the national plan was finalised.

Is school still starting on schedule?

Students in Victoria, New South Wales, Western Australia, the Northern Territory and the Australian Capital Territory (for new students only) will return to school on 31 January. Remote schools in the NT and returning students in the ACT will start on 1 February.

Queensland and South Australia have both delayed the start of term one in an attempt to avoid the forecast peak of Omicron cases in those states.

Students in South Australia in preschool, reception, year 1, year 7, year 8 and year 12 will return to face-to-face learning from 2 February. Students in years 2-6 and 9-11 will begin remote learning from 2 February. The aim is to have all students back on campus on 14 February.

In Queensland, year 11 and 12 students will do one week of remote learning from 31 January, then all students will return to campus on 7 February.

Will teachers and students have access to RAT tests?

This is being finalised but the message from most states is yes – with the exact numbers and use of those tests yet to be determined.

NSW will reportedly ask students to take two rapid antigen tests a week under a plan being developed in concert with the Victorian government. The NSW premier, Dominic Perrottet, would not confirm the plan at a press conference on Tuesday but said: “At this stage we see rapid antigen tests playing a role as we open up schools.”

South Australia said its education department was working with SA Health on the use of rapid antigen testing for students and staff – and confirmed the tests would be available in schools this year.

Related: ‘It’s a circus’: Guardian Australia readers on trying to get Covid vaccinations for their children

The Australian Education Union’s Victorian branch president, Meredith Peace, said free and readily available RATs and access to priority PCR testing in the case of outbreaks were a vital part of any return-to-school strategy.

“I don’t think we have a clear path to return to school without free and ready access to RAT tests across the country for both staff and students,” she said. “We won’t have an effective national plan unless we have effective testing protocols in place.”

What if my child or someone in my household has Covid?

Students who have tested positive can’t return to school until they have recovered. Students who are the household contact of someone with Covid must follow the standard protocol – meaning they isolate for seven days and can return to school provided they test negative on day six.

What if a teacher has Covid?

Teachers and education staff who test positive for Covid are required to stay home until they have recovered.

If my child’s classmate has Covid, will I have to isolate?

Probably not, but this is for state and territory governments to decide. Classrooms are not listed on the national guidelines for close contacts, meaning the determination lies with the states.

NSW and Victoria have suggested they will not require other students to stay home if a classmate tests positive.

What happens if a teacher is a close contact?

National cabinet last week added education and childcare workers to the list of essential workers who are no longer required to isolate if they are a close contact – if they have tested negative.

State and territory governments have indicated they will follow this edict but we will know more about what schools are doing once they release the national plan.

The AEU said it was “very concerned” that asking teachers not to isolate could lead to more infections. “We understand this is a difficult time but we don’t believe the health and safety of teachers should be put at risk in that way,” Peace said. “We are not supportive of the idea and we think it results in greater risk to not just teachers, but to students and families.”

How will staff shortages be covered?

NSW has said it may call upon retired teachers and those in their final year of university to cover furloughed teaching staff.

Other states say they will rely on an existing workforce of casual and relief teachers.

Western Australia’s education minister, Sue Ellery, said her department had “more than 5,000 vaccinated casual staff in the system who can fill in where there are vacancies due to illness or otherwise”.

Related: Covid doesn’t just stop at the front door of Australia's childcare centres | Lisa Bryant

The AEU said it would be up to individual schools to manage, but allowing some classes or year levels to switch to remote learning in response to an isolation requirement or a positive case could ease the pressure on teachers. But it said teachers should not be expected to deliver a hybrid teaching model – it must either be fully face-to-face or fully remote.

Are any states using outdoor classrooms?

Victoria has provided $60m in funding for schools to erect shade sails and create other areas that could be used for outdoor classrooms in government-funded and low-fee private schools.

They say they will also have installed 51,000 air filters in schools by the start of term. Tasmania has also installed air filters in government schools.

NSW said in October 2021 that the education department had bought 19,000 air purifiers, but they would only be distributed in air quality emergencies – such as bushfires over the summer. It’s focusing on “natural ventilation”.

South Australia says doors and windows are to be left open to encourage ventilation and outdoor learning is “encouraged where appropriate”.

Will students be required to wear masks?

Face masks must be worn indoors in Victoria for kids aged eight and over and students in grade three and up. In NSW, masks must be worn indoors by anyone aged 12 and over.

In Queensland, face masks must be worn by teachers and all students at high school, unless exemptions apply.

In South Australia, face masks are required for students in year 7 and higher, and strongly encouraged for students in grades three to six.

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