South Australia’s Lax Return to School

Tomorrow South Australian students will return to a ‘hybrid’ back-to-school model. But many are worried that the government is putting children in danger with insufficient COVID safeguards.

Where east coast states like NSW and Victoria have implemented surveillance testing and air purifiers in classrooms, SA Premier Steven Marshall has refused to do so. Teachers continue to protest the lack of responsible measures in talks with the government.

SA’s ‘hybrid model’ plan

Although health experts and teachers have urged the SA government to delay the return to school by a fortnight, schools will go back tomorrow as planned. However, most grades will spend the first fortnight of the year learning from home.

Students will undergo a ‘staggered’ return to face-to-face. Years 1, 7, 8 and 12 will begin in-person from the get-go, while other year groups will return by the 14th of February. Interschool sport, assemblies, choir, camps and excursions will also be postponed in the first 3 weeks of the school year.

Schools will be open for children of ‘essential workers’ – but SA Minister for Education John Gardner says this definition is up to parents to determine.

Masks will be mandatory for all adults including teachers, as well as for all high school students. They are strongly recommended for all students in year 3 and above. Non-essential visitors to schools will be restricted, and outdoor learning will be encouraged.

But Premier Marshall’s government has refused to install air purifiers in state schools, despite clear evidence of their importance in mitigating COVID spread. Experts have strongly recommended the use of Hepa air filters in close-contact settings. NSW and Victoria will install purifiers in some schools.

According to SA’s Chief Public Health Officer Nicola Spurrier, “opening doors and opening windows is much more effective than having air purifiers.” She claimed this was based off an ‘independent trial’ the state government had commissioned, which found “air purifiers do not reduce the amount of CO2 within education spaces in any meaningful way and provide minimal improvement to the quality of the air.”

It seems to have slipped under Professor Spurrier’s radar that the recommended air purifiers are designed to filter COVID particles, not reduce CO2 levels. Spurrier went on to say, “using your outdoor space as a classroom setting is also a very useful alternative for us, particularly here in South Australia in the middle of summer.”

Teachers protest lack of measures

The SA government is also not conducting surveillance testing among students and teachers. Governments in NSW, Victoria and the ACT are giving parents 2 free rapid antigen tests per week to catch infections early. Teachers in these states also receive RAT provisions.

But South Australians will not enjoy similar rations.

Led by the SA branch of the Australian Education union, SA teachers had planned a strike for the first day of school, to protest the government’s lax COVID provisions. Branch president Andrew Grohl said their main worry was the ‘significant disparity’ in RAT policies between SA and eastern states.

The strike has been postponed as the union continues talks with the government. Air purifiers, N95 supplies and rapid testing have all been on the agenda, with both parties being pleased with progress. South Australia recorded 1,505 cases and 6 deaths yesterday.

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