A question on every parent’s mind: will schools close because of COVID-19?

Rebecca Vassarotti MLA 19 March 2020 61
Students at Turner Public

Closing schools would be incredibly disruptive, including to emergency workers who might have to take leave to care for children. Photo: Region Media.

Those of us with children and young people in our care are having to navigate a whole range of concerns due to COVID-19. Key among these is the issue of schools and whether or not they will be closed. And if not now, when?

After all, we are being told as a community to reduce our time with others, practise social distancing, work from home if we can and minimise involvement in events with many people. Schools are places where large numbers of people congregate – often people who like to touch each other and may not be as fastidious in their personal hygiene as they should be.

Given this, it seems important to at least understand why school closures aren’t being implemented yet.

We know closing schools would be incredibly disruptive.

Governments have been planning for pandemics such as this. The Government’s own influenza pandemic plan was released last year (prior to the emergence of COVID-19) and noted that school closures are not generally a recommended action in part due to this disruption.

Government figures suggests that around 40 per cent of parents would be significantly impacted. When this prospect has been raised recently, concerns cited include the reality that back up care arrangements often involve grandparents – a group at particular risk from COVID-19 due to their age.

The Government’s plan provides useful insights into what is being considered through this pandemic.

Most importantly, there are questions about effectiveness, which seem to be influenced by when this decision is made.

When done proactively, the Government information suggests that school closures may reduce transmission by between 1 per cent and 50 per cent, and may delay an epidemic by a week or two.

Reactive school closures seem to be less effective, with an estimated reduction rate of transmission of between 7 per cent and 15 per cent, although in some rare cases it could be much higher.

The Government’s plan notes that if longer-term closure is considered, it is better to introduce this measure as soon as possible. However, if a short period of closure is implemented, it is preferable to close schools a few weeks before an epidemic’s peak. While early closure is most likely to reduce initial epidemic transmission, if schools close early, it is generally going to be for longer.

Then there is the issue of what it will cost economically.

The plan recognises that while direct costs are moderate, indirect costs to the economy are extreme. There is also a matter of who carries these costs.

Most worrying is the impact on single parents (most often women), and it is likely to be disastrous for those who do not have back up support, don’t have access to paid leave or have precarious employment and income. If school closures do happen, there needs to be some plan to support families left without income due to the need to take on caring responsibilities.

There are also other costs to the potential of us losing a significant proportion of the workforce. This is particularly the case if people in the health care and social assistance industries are unable to work. These are the professions that we will need most to ensure those most vulnerable are being cared for through this crisis. There are concerns about the health impacts of losing a proportion of this workforce at a time when we need them most.

When looking overseas, the evidence on what to do around schools is mixed.

To be effective, some evidence suggests it needs to be early and for a significant period of time. Different countries who seem to have flattened the curve have taken different approaches to do this. In Hong Kong, schools closed in January and will remain closed until at least Easter. Singapore has not moved to mass school closures yet.

So, there is no easy plan to follow, and the move to close schools will end up being a judgement-call by our political leaders. Timing does seem to be important and we will need to be ready to respond if advice changes.

While schools remain open, the key strategy for parents and teachers includes instilling the importance of social distancing with children and young people who are in crowded school environments. Camps, excursions and assemblies are now all banned as one way to embed these new norms.

While schools remain open for now, it is important for us to start to think about how we might respond if things change. The Victorian Premier has previously suggested their schools may have extended holidays, and schools are developing plans on how to deal with the potential of a student or school community member being diagnosed with COVID-19. In NSW, this has seen the temporary closure of individual schools.

Clear, honest and up-to-date communication will be a key way that we will manage this. For us in the ACT, we are being encouraged to access the ACT Health information, as the central place for information on a fast-changing situation.

Coming together as a community to support each other becomes more important each day. For all of us, a central focus is helping our children and young people to respond to this real crisis, while also ensuring they feel safe and looked after in a time of uncertainty and fear.

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61 Responses to A question on every parent’s mind: will schools close because of COVID-19?
Matthew James Matthew James 3:22 pm 20 Mar 20

The schools are way ahead of the government on this - they know schools are almost as risky as doctors’ surgeries on the infection front and have working hard to provide remote learning resources and reduce numbers attending schools while the government yet again sleeps at at the wheel as they were with their month-long delay in shutting down the airports.

TimboinOz TimboinOz 8:11 am 20 Mar 20

As usual, too few people have read and absorbed the case for not closing schools for now.

As LCpl Jones used to yell ‘Don’t Panic! Don’t Panic!

maxblues maxblues 2:00 am 20 Mar 20

Yes, get children out of school. They can receive real-world education if you train them to shimmy down the odd chimney or climb through cat flaps to borrow the neighbourhood hoards of toilet paper. Apply for a grant now.

Dale Rogers Dale Rogers 11:11 pm 19 Mar 20

Oh wow! Rebecca, I’m really astounded by how many words you used to say absolutely nothing.

Jackie Tomich Jackie Tomich 8:17 pm 19 Mar 20

Not all parents are in the medical profession. Teachers have no choice.

Alexandra Hughes Alexandra Hughes 5:30 pm 19 Mar 20

Maybe we could keep some schools open for the students of emergency service workers, doctors, nurses. I really dont know how or if that would work... so many options really we just need to think it through.

Yuri Shukost Yuri Shukost 1:13 pm 19 Mar 20

The government is avoiding pulling the trigger on this because if young kids are kept at home, a working parent might have to look after them. Sticking kids in front of the TV or a mobile device rather than distance learning (and making sure they do it) doesn't cut it. The impact of this on the economy as well as essential services could be dramatic.

    Matthew James Matthew James 3:19 pm 20 Mar 20

    thats a rationalisation that doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. Children of health workers are the *first* ones who need to be isolated.

Margaret Makeham-Kirchner Margaret Makeham-Kirchner 1:13 pm 19 Mar 20

We have 3 cases in the ACT. The Murray’s bus one was a bit concerning. However, I feel we need to be cautious about closing down stuff as the economic and social impact is huge and may not be required yet.

    Joyjii Kitr Joyjii Kitr 10:08 pm 19 Mar 20

    Margaret Makkir i think we just got the 4th case today 😞

    Margaret Makeham-Kirchner Margaret Makeham-Kirchner 10:13 pm 19 Mar 20

    Joyjii Kitr yes, another one brought from outside. We still haven’t had a case of outside to ACT, nor community transmission yet. We will, but haven’t yet , so as far as we can tell, it’s not yet in our community unless one of those four spreads it to others or new people come/ return to CANBERRA with it. Until we start getting into community transmission that is untraceable, like other parts of the country, we are actually quite ok as a community and economy

    Joyjii Kitr Joyjii Kitr 10:15 pm 19 Mar 20

    Margaret Makkir it’s will be a tough time if we don’t close canberra 😕

    Joyjii Kitr Joyjii Kitr 10:16 pm 19 Mar 20

    I owned a cafe and already considering closing down. It has been minus last week, for first time in past 4 years

    Margaret Makeham-Kirchner Margaret Makeham-Kirchner 12:59 pm 21 Mar 20

    Kirrin Birrin yes, now 9. Do we know if there is any community transmission yet?

    Kir Rin Kir Rin 4:04 pm 21 Mar 20

    Margaret so far all have recently returned from OS.

    Fran Gray Fran Gray 2:50 pm 22 Mar 20

    And now it's 19.

Timmy Holness Timmy Holness 11:53 am 19 Mar 20

As a teacher (not babysitter) I’m worried about my health and all those that are around me. There is no 1.5 meter distance or special daily cleaning just business as usual
Kids can and will get sick from it and some will die. A lot less than adults yes and they will mostly bounce back. Many of us are still suffering lung wise from 3 months of smoke including our kids and we still don’t know the effects of this And how (If) our lung capacity has been compromised. Why can’t essential services go to work and their kids only go to a school set up for them? There is a school already set up in the actual hospital
There is a gastro bug and a head cold going around schools at the moment too which further increases anxiety all around.
I’ve tried 4 supermarkets this morning to get toilet paper with no luck. I’m not panic buying and I couldn’t even if I wanted too. While I’m at work everything is sold out

    Claire Claire 5:04 pm 19 Mar 20

    There was no toilet paper when I was there just after 7:00 am. There was also no bread flour, yeast or white vinegar.

Corey Karl Corey Karl 10:52 am 19 Mar 20

How about we worry about it when it happens rather than running around getting everybody worried about something that may or may not happen !!

    Corey Karl Corey Karl 1:14 pm 19 Mar 20

    Chris Cross the schools will close when the schools close. If people want to carry on and remove them before hand, that’s up to them !!

    Kir Rin Kir Rin 9:27 am 21 Mar 20

    ”worry about it when it happens” is not a great strategy in the circumstances. Glad our health system isn’t doing that. I prefer plan for the worst hope for the best.

    Corey Karl Corey Karl 9:28 am 21 Mar 20

    Kirrin Birrin yeah well carrying on like a pork chop isn’t helping anyone !! Like I said, if you’re worried take your kids out!! Just stop complaining about everything

    Kir Rin Kir Rin 9:29 am 21 Mar 20

    Corey Karl there is a space between doing nothing and carrying on like a pork chop. They aren’t the only two options.

Monty Ki Monty Ki 10:42 am 19 Mar 20

Lots of us started keeping our children home this week, even with schools still open. NOW IS THE TIME to "smooth the curve" of the virus trajectory and allow everyone accessibility to hospital and health care services by avoiding a quick spike in cases all at once.

Our local ACT public school has already emailed us with ideas for "homeschooling" due to the number of people keeping children at home. I wrote this email to explain our decision to the school. If you also choose to keep your child at home, please write an email to your school, so they can gather a body of evidence for the education department for the needs of students and teachers, to plan going forward. Feel free to use mine as a template. Names removed for privacy:

Hi ___________,

After careful consideration, _______ (husband) and I have decided to keep _______(our child) home indefinitely until the coronavirus crisis has passed. We are hoping to keep healthy ourselves, but also to do our bit to reduce the load on services like hospitals and other health care. We are self-isolating as much as possible ourselves, though we still have work commitments. As I work from home, ______ will be kept at home and I will do my best to focus on her reading and writing, which seems to be the primary focus in Year ____. I will add other activities that she enjoys and hopefully, we will “smooth out the curve” of the virus trajectory and not suffer as Italy has. We felt the government was too slow to act when we went through the bushfires at the South Coast in January, and based on their previous track record, we feel that the government is not acting fast enough to contain this virus (given the information and evidence from other countries) and we should self-isolate as much as possible now.

I hope you understand our decision. We would value any input or insights you have, whether for health, or _______ education while at home.

Please keep us up to date and informed of any changes to the school/requirements via this email address.

Warm regards,


Dorinda Lillington Dorinda Lillington 10:01 am 19 Mar 20

Home Schooling is looking good.

Scott Harvey Scott Harvey 8:54 am 19 Mar 20

I'm not waiting for the green light to take my kid out of school, I already have.

    Elizabeth Ann Thurbon Elizabeth Ann Thurbon 9:32 am 19 Mar 20

    Scott Harvey a teacher somewhere thanks you

    Scott Harvey Scott Harvey 9:45 am 19 Mar 20

    Elizabeth Ann Thurbon probably her preschool teacher who must be at least 70.

    Sher Bee Sher Bee 10:04 am 19 Mar 20

    Scott Harvey good for you

Alex Chapuis Alex Chapuis 8:40 am 19 Mar 20

People do understand that if schools close, it’s going to be indefinitely. Nowhere that has closed schools has been able to provide any indication as to when they will reopen. And for the social distancing to work, you can’t let them all go over to each others’ place to play or go to the movies etc. If the schools close, it’ll be because we’re at the stage where we all need to stay at home and not go out. Are those calling for closures prepared for that? We’ve a much more dispersed and less densely packed population. If people exercise common sense with hygiene and distancing, we can avoid what’s happened elsewhere. But it requires people to do the right thing.

    Jackie White Jackie White 9:18 am 19 Mar 20

    "people exercise common sense" - have you seen the news lately???

Sharon Hunter Sharon Hunter 8:30 am 19 Mar 20

I read a suggestion that childcare workers could be employed by families if schools are closed. This seems a good idea in terms of allowing the essential service people to go to work but still have their children with a qualified person.

    Harriet Spinks Harriet Spinks 9:18 am 19 Mar 20

    Sharon Hunter and who would pay for this? Most people can’t afford to pay for a full time nanny in their home.

    Sharon Hunter Sharon Hunter 9:25 am 19 Mar 20

    Harriet Spinks

    That wasn’t addressed but maybe it’s partially offset by not paying daycare places especially if there is more than one child.

Jim Jim Jim Jim 8:21 am 19 Mar 20

Does anybody actually listen to the chief medical officer or PM on why closing schools early is a bad idea...

    Sher Bee Sher Bee 9:53 am 19 Mar 20

    Jim Hosie spot on, so many unqualified people commenting. At the end of the day, you can choose to keep your child home. Stop slamming people who are working their way through this situation. Australia is doing well, our virus numbers are SLOWLY increased which is the best outcome.

    Kurt Halbauer Kurt Halbauer 4:30 pm 19 Mar 20

    Jim Hosie nah just a bunch of armchair experts who know better 🤔

    Alexandra Hughes Alexandra Hughes 5:31 pm 19 Mar 20

    Apparently only some peoples opinions are valued.

Beverlea Joce Beverlea Joce 7:58 am 19 Mar 20

I'm sure if and when it becomes necessary then schools will close. In the meantime people need to keep working and not all can work from home. I know schools are learning institutions not baby sitting areas but if kept home how many children will be left all day by themselves, not learning anything. My best wishes to all those who need to work amongst the public everyday

Yasmin Melean Yasmin Melean 7:56 am 19 Mar 20

I do understand the idea of keeping schools open to let the doctors work, but if we reduce contact from the beginning we will fight this thing ahead. I think one way is to let the schools open for the doctors, essential services people and the rest of us should retire our kids if possible to reduce the spreading.

    Leigh Brady Leigh Brady 8:56 am 19 Mar 20

    Yasmin, most experts are saying that closing schools will result in more spread, as people try to find friends/family/grandparents to look after their kids.

    Right now kids are in a pretty organised and safe environment, exposed to only a few of the same kids each day.

    Yasmin Melean Yasmin Melean 9:19 am 19 Mar 20

    Leigh that is why I said just not fully closed so you don't increase the risk by leaving the kids with the elderly, that I think would be silly. What I meant if I am the parent, and I can afford to work from/stay at home, then I should alleviate the system by keeping the child with me. Each grain/effort counts in this fight.

    Carol Dutkiewicz Carol Dutkiewicz 10:27 am 19 Mar 20

    Yasmin Melean parents can choose to do that now

    Bekah Glaz Bekah Glaz 10:29 am 19 Mar 20

    Yasmin, yeah, but

    a) not allowed to remove kids from school without a direction from gov

    b) not given any consideration for childcare responsibility at work without a direction from govt

    Cass Proudfoot Cass Proudfoot 11:10 am 19 Mar 20

    Six different classes of 30 kids in high school in 6 different rooms, full of surfaces touched by 6 classes a day. Not to mention the crowded corridors.

    Yasmin Melean Yasmin Melean 11:56 am 19 Mar 20

    Bekah you should be allowed without punishment, this is not a game :(. In a way I am hoping some people in government think of proposing this option as an alternative now before is too late.

    Kylie Tinnock Kylie Tinnock 10:00 pm 19 Mar 20

    Yasmin Melean I’m not an essential service person I’m a single mum of 3 kids who’s a bus driver. If the schools shut I have to stop working. Who is going to pay my bills and put food on my kids table. I rent a house I’m not paying a mortgage so the banks won’t help me. I don’t see how closing the schools at the moment will help why can’t we self isolate over the school holidays that way single parents can still provide for our families

    Yasmin Melean Yasmin Melean 11:00 pm 19 Mar 20

    Kylie in a previous comment I tried to explain that a partial closure to me means that if you can take care of your kid because you can stay at home then you should do it. To me you fall in the category of people needing to work so you should have the option of the school (or another service if necessary) offered to you. In plus, to me you are one of those essential service people that I mentioned in my main comment :) ... Whoever finds that they can or want to help by depopulating the classrooms should be given the green light and whoever needs or want to send their kids to school then they can too. I think the option should be given clearly by the authorities to help the community as much as possible.

    Guy Be Guy Be 1:30 pm 20 Mar 20

    Luke don't ruin this expert panel discussion with evidence.

    Mariel Kerrigan Mariel Kerrigan 10:30 pm 20 Mar 20

    Yep- let them teach their kids not to listen to professionals; let them learn arrogance so that it might cover ignorance; let them disrespect authority; let them always think of themselves first...

Cass Proudfoot Cass Proudfoot 7:47 am 19 Mar 20

Schools are closed in 134 other countries.

    Fiona Timoney Fiona Timoney 10:09 am 19 Mar 20

    Cass Proudfoot but yet, according to most of the other commentators on here, Australia knows best. Ireland has less than a days notice that schools would be closing last Friday. Everyone pulled together to sort out arrangements. The graphs speak for themselves.

    Ev Petros Ev Petros 1:20 am 20 Mar 20

    Fiona Timoney Hi Fiona, what does this graph indicate?

    Fiona Timoney Fiona Timoney 5:03 am 20 Mar 20

    Ev Petros number of cases over days. You cant compare numbers alone because Australia has a much larger population than Ireland for example. But what this represents is a very similar pattern, seen the world over, that once numbers reach about 100, there is no slowing down the doubling of numbers every two to three days UNLESS drastic steps are taken. Hong Kong and Japan bucked the trend because of early intervention /measures (they learnt after SARS) The only point I was making is that Ireland where I now live (I'm originally from Canberra) took decisive action including closing schools when their numbers got out of control, while Australia, IMHO is yet to do enough despite a very similar trajectory.

    Fiona Timoney Fiona Timoney 5:06 am 20 Mar 20

    Ev Petros the real test will be to see if theres any difference in the graph in two weeks, after Ireland has effectively stayed inside since 13 March and Australia is concerned only about their economy (or at least so it would seem from here).

Erin Papps Erin Papps 7:19 am 19 Mar 20

Once again not a single mention of the fact that teachers are treated as disposable in all of this. Why do we not value their health and safety?

    Olivia Ladd Olivia Ladd 7:28 am 19 Mar 20

    Erin Papps Unfortunately teachers are a necessary requirement at the moment. As the article states, closing schools creates a massive flow on effect for other necessary workers such as medical professionals and emergency services. No one is forgetting them, but we just really need them to continue doing their job at the moment, like many others.

    Erin Papps Erin Papps 7:48 am 19 Mar 20

    Juliet Jackman precisely. If schools can’t be closed, they must be depopulated.

    Ryan Cantrill Ryan Cantrill 7:49 am 19 Mar 20

    Olivia Ladd do you believe everything you read on social media ? We have 400 odd cases, other countries have thousands. What’s going to happen when we have thousands of cases? That’s when we will need medical professionals. Closing the schools now in conjunction with all the other social distancing measures, we prevent spread getting high into the thousands, stressing our health care system and medical professionals.

    Kriso Hadskini Kriso Hadskini 8:35 am 19 Mar 20

    Erin Papps Exactly, there are plenty of 60yr old teachers with no PPE. Where are the unions in all this? If the UK can do it then so can we.

    Raffy Sgroi Raffy Sgroi 1:09 pm 19 Mar 20

    Olivia Ladd considering many teens will be out and about anyway

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