Mandatory vaccinations for teachers would not get students back into class faster, Deputy Chief Health Officer Dr Vanessa Johnston said, as parents seek clarity over when face to face learning will return.
The return to school in the ACT is being tapered, with Year 12 students returning on 4 October and Year 11 from 18 October, on the condition the current situation does not deteriorate further.
Dr Johnston said vaccine take up from teachers has not been a concern and that schools and health officials were focused on how health measures in schools can be improved – including better ventilation and less interaction between classes.
“Uptake of vaccination in our community is not a problem. I expect that the vast majority of teachers, when we arrive at the time they can return to work, will have received two doses of vaccination,” she said.
“What we are hoping to do is to put in measures that will significantly reduce mixing and mingling of teachers and students such that hopefully into the future we do not need to see a whole school shut down, that it may be classes or cohorts.
“There are [also] other discussions about moving to outdoor learning, particularly during the summer months when the weather allows.”
Children from the age of 12 can get vaccinated but concerns remain for younger children with no vaccine approved for people under that age. Frontline teachers and Year 12 students also have priority access to Pfizer appointments under an ACT Government initiative.
Dr Johnston said this risk factor would be mitigated by the fact that children are less likely to spread the virus and children are less likely to have a severe illness.
A National Centre for Immunisation Research and Surveillance report found that 2 per cent of children diagnosed with COVID-19 in the current NSW outbreak were hospitalised.
The report also found that transmission in schools was low, but noted this might be impacted by the school holiday period and subsequent limited onsite attendance throughout Term 3.
Almost 90 per cent of children with the virus acquired the infection from household contacts. The majority of cases had an asymptomatic or mild infection.
Dr Johnston said even if vaccination rates in teachers and students were high, the ACT would still need to ensure adequate vaccination levels in the broader community before returning to face to face learning.
“It is absolutely true that the evidence suggests that the severity [of the virus] in children is reduced compared to adults, but it is also absolutely true that we have seen significant outbreaks in primary schools [and] early learning centres more so than high schools,” Dr Johnston said.
“Transmission in schools will mirror community transmission, and once you see higher numbers, you start to see more severe disease.
“The work that is going into the planning to reopening is taking into account all of those things: the impact on learning at the different year levels, the impact on social and emotional wellbeing and also the impact from circulating COVID.”
The ACT is expected to cross the 80 per cent double dose threshold for over 16s in late October.
But Dr Johnston would not outline a specific vaccination target for children or the broader community that would allow for a return to face to face learning.
“There is no magic bullet [vaccination rate] for kids per se. It is about looking at the national population coverage and how that will work to protect those children,” she said.
“The [rate] very mich aligns with the population coverage thresholds we are aiming to get in Phase B and C [70 and 80 per cent].
“I would not say we have projected schools to go back a lot later down the line [but] the planning is still underway.”
Opposition Leader Elizabeth Lee said parents were disappointed to learn there was no clear plan about when students from Year 10 and below would be able to return to the classroom following Tuesday’s announcement.
“The Chief Minister is good at spruiking how good the vaccination rate is, and he knows the estimated dates for when the thresholds [will be reached],” she said.
“If he wants to spruik that vaccination rates are our way out of lockdown, he needs to provide certainty at what threshold different restrictions will ease.”
On Tuesday, Chief Minister Andrew Barr said that he intended to provide further details about the Territory’s plan to taper restrictions in the coming weeks and following National Cabinet deliberations.
National Cabinet is due to meet this Friday (17 September) and will discuss further details for the national plan, outlining what restrictions can be eased at the 70 and 80 per cent vaccination thresholds.