The Australian Health Protection Principal Committee (AHPPC) statement on minimising the potential risk of COVID-19 transmission in schools published in February 2021, noted that more transmissible variants of the COVID-19 virus had emerged overseas. The rapid spread of such a variant, Delta, is currently being experienced in Australia. The Delta variant is highly transmissible with even short periods of contact indoors and rarely, but potentially, outdoors or through contact with contaminated surfaces. Graduated measures are likely to be needed in response. Delta is likely to remain the dominant variant at this time in Australia. The higher transmissibility of this variant represents a potentially higher risk of transmission in schools and early childhood education and care, if there is local community transmission.
The same methods that have prevented the spread of COVID-19 so far will also prevent the spread of the Delta variant if applied consistently and with high compliance. AHPPC continues to emphasise the importance of COVIDSafe plans and principles being embedded in school operations. When there are no local cases of COVID-19, standard plans include ensuring that; students and staff with symptoms do not attend school, visitors to the school are registered such as through QR codes. There needs to be importance placed on hand and respiratory hygiene along with good ventilation, regular cleaning and disinfection of the environment.
If there are Delta cases in the community a risk assessment will be undertaken by the jurisdiction that will consider the measures that need to be applied commensurate with the risk. AHPPC recognises the serious impact school closures have on all children and the need for the response to be proportionate to the risk of transmission in the school setting. During closures, vulnerable students and children of essential workers need to have continued access to onsite education.
Boarding schools need plans in place to manage their response to different levels of COVID-19 disease in the community. If movement restrictions are in place, boarding school leaders should contact state or territory health departments before changing living arrangements for students. Responsibility for decisions regarding border exemptions ultimately lie with the Chief Health Officer for the relevant state or territory see AHPPC statement on boarding students and students living in border zones.
It is important that we continue to protect the health and wellbeing of students and staff during the threats of COVID-19 outbreaks. Students and staff may experience loneliness, confusion and see distressing scenes and stories. Head to Health provides online resources on mental health and COVID-19, including information for parents, which may also assist teachers. School systems should support staff with existing Employee Assistance Programs.