Rapid antigen testing is set to play a crucial role in NSW’s back to school plan, with Premier Dominic Perrottet refusing to keep schools closed despite many students set to return to classrooms unvaccinated on February 1.
Under a “test to stay” program, students in the same cohort as any confirmed case will be required to undertake a rapid test, with those who return a negative reading permitted to go to school. Parents of students in public schools will have to sign up to receive the test, test children at home in the morning and upload a photo of the negative result onto an app compiling data to assess the possibility of an outbreak. The program will also be available to private schools and childcare centres.
Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk announced earlier this week that students in her state would return on February 7, a fortnight later than original plans, after Omicron modelling predicted peaks to occur in the final week of January and the first week of February. Mr Perrottet has stood firm on a February 1 face-to-face return date, saying that “the alternative is to keep schools closed, and we will not do that”.
With COVID-19 cases expected to soar in the coming days following Service NSW launching positive rapid test registration on its app yesterday, many parents and guardians have expressed concerns with the return to face-to-face learning while children are not fully vaccinated and community transmission is high.
Parent at Lilyfield’s Orange Grove Public School and new Inner West councillor Kobi Shetty told City Hub that she felt that there wasn’t “much information at the moment” ahead of students returning in under three weeks.
“All I’ve heard is vague plans around mass rapid testing to get kids back, but very little around use of things like HEPA [high efficiency particulate air] filters in classrooms and other strategies to keep kids and teachers safe,” she said.
“It’s positive that the government recognises the importance of getting children back to school after so many disruptions these last couple of years, but we need more information.”
Concern among teachers has continued to rise in recent weeks as absentee rates are expected to rise as a result of the Omicron surge. The NSW Teachers’ Union earlier this month called for an urgent meeting with health and education officials before students return to classrooms, with state Teachers Federation President Angelo Gavrielatos telling The Guardian that “we are now living in a very different context” than in the final school weeks of 2021.
Frustration among parents has also worsened as many vaccination appointments for children aged 5-11 were forced to be postponed following an insufficient supply of vaccines, increasing the likelihood of a greater proportion of unvaccinated students in schools. Cr Shetty said that “parents are going to be understandably nervous about sending their kids back to school” next month.
Further details of NSW’s plans for returning to school are set to be released following a meeting of the National cabinet later today. Mr Perrottet hoped that the cabinet would take a unified approach to a return to face-to-face learning, and help assure parents and teachers of a safe reopening.