16 September 2021

Vaccine mandate for teachers won't open schools faster, further safety measures for students flagged

| Dominic Giannini
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Vanessa Johnston, Deputy Chief Health Officer.

Deputy Chief Health Officer Dr Vanessa Johnston said the vaccination rates of teachers were not a concern in the ACT. Photo: Michelle Kroll.

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.

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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.

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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.”

ACT Election Declaration of Results. Elizabeth Lee Canberra Liberals. Photo: Michelle Kroll

Opposition leader Elizabeth Lee has called for a clearer timeline for the return of face to face learning. Photo: Michelle Kroll.

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.

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The ACT should allow children to go back to school based on ACT Vaccination thresholds and not wait for National Vaccination thresholds as well as have a clear detailed plan for doing so before the start of Term 4.

Why exactly are children in the ACT waiting for the vaccination rate of adults in the three most lagging states (Western Australia, South Australia and QLD) to meet a criteria when ACT children have
o a higher vaccination rate in their own state,
o a rate which will be met weeks earlier than national levels, and
o a border to protect them from people travelling from these states?

Here is a petition link asking for an ACT vaccination rate threshold not national and a plan before school starts. Petition link – https://chng.it/s2vmhNvQry

Or how about we let the medical experts and educators announce a plan when it’s determined to be safe as safe as possible in the ever changing conditions of the pandemic

There are a couple of issues with your point.

– Medical experts have already spoken, see Canberra Times article, and the Dept of Health has not made us aware of any of the expertise they have drawn on (this is the basis of transparent decision making). All primary and high school students will not be going back to school for another 6 weeks, with no justification other than we want to wait for National vaccination rates and see what happens.

https://www.canberratimes.com.au/story/7431933/act-aims-to-end-school-shutdowns-as-experts-encourage-speedy-return-to-class/?src=rss

– There is also a problem with having a wait and see approach to planning, or having just one plan.

Last lockdown in 2020 children were doing home-schooling up until week 5 of Term 2 (a total of 8 weeks of home schooling) with- for a time – 0 cases in the community, because, the ACT Education Depts’ plan of closing schools and starting Hubs (remember them – the only state to do this) was over the top and unnecessary.

The Hubs last year opened week 1 of T2 with the idea of being open for a whole term, only to be closed the following week.

Because there was no contingency planning it was only announced in week 2 that schools would stagger their opening, which meant children last year were still being home-schooled in term 2 up until the end of week 5 whilst these was 0 infections in the community.

Are they going to repeat the mistakes of last year or plan, do scenario mapping, and be transparent with the expertise they have drawn on?

An elected government represents the public and the public has a right to know how their decisions are made and how that affects them – the problem is those mechanisms that ensure decision checks and balances are removed during a emergency order.

This article from two days ago in the riot act – further explains this last point

https://the-riotact.com/how-is-the-covid-19-pandemic-affecting-australias-democracy/495357

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