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Public health experts: Urgent need for Covid-19 action plan for schools

Leading public health experts including Professor Michael Baker are urging the Government to create a Covid-19 action plan for schools as the country heads into winter.

A team of researchers from the University of Otago have outlined what they feel should be the path ahead for the pandemic in regards schools and kura in Aotearoa and criticised the Government’s approach to dealing with Omicron in education settings.

The urgent need for a Covid-19 Action Plan for Schools in Aotearoa New Zealand* was published by the Dunedin-based university in late May. It says, “As winter arrives, NZ should urgently introduce a Covid-19 Action Plan for Schools to support children’s access to education and to protect children, school staff, and their families from Covid-19 and from the return of other winter respiratory infections.”

Prof Michael Baker
Image: University of Otago

The paper outlines the pandemic ‘story so far’, the current state of affairs and offers its suggestions for how best to keep the virus at bay over the coming cooler months. 

“At the onset of the Omicron outbreak in Aotearoa New Zealand (NZ) in early 2022, the Government announced a policy for schools that was essentially a business-as-usual approach, advising that schools would stay open through the outbreak. However, protections to prevent Covid-19 transmission were incomplete and there have been significant adverse consequences for school communities. NZ’s pandemic policy for schools needs to pivot to a whānau-centred approach that takes in-school transmission seriously.”

It suggests lessons can be learned from the UK’s high rate of Omicron cases in schools and calls current student absentee numbers here in New Zealand “highly concerning”.

“Schools provide a number of wellbeing supports in addition to their education role, and current absentee numbers are highly concerning. There are individual children whose wellbeing depends on support from outside the home and these children are undoubtedly better off in school. But this observation should not be extended out to a population-level conclusion that all children should be in school during the most intense infectious disease epidemic NZ has experienced in over 100 years.”

Authors say the true number of Omicron cases in school communities across the country is unknown.

“Official figures show that during Term 1 there were just under 100,000 confirmed cases aged 0-9 years and over 147,000 cases aged 10-19 years, but these figures are likely to be substantially underestimated. Media reports described high case numbers in schools and education records show that on 11 March 2022, over 250,000 children were absent from school.

“The decision to prioritise school attendance without also providing strong protections and transparent outbreak information has had a range of unintended consequences such as significant educational disruption as well as exposure of students, staff, and their household members to both acute and longer-term risks of Covid-19, including long Covid in children and adults, with concerning implications for their health now and in the future. Children with persisting symptoms from Omicron infection are already being seen in NZ.

“This policy has placed an unnecessarily heavy burden on school staff, requiring them to take on a pandemic management role in addition to their many existing commitments. And as the recent Human Rights Commission inquiry reports, people who are immune compromised or disabled have been put at risk, experiencing a range of negative impacts from the lack of support in education settings.”

The urgent need for a Covid-19 Action Plan for Schools in Aotearoa New Zealand, Baker M, Bennett J, Dickson A, Kvalsvig A, Summers J, Telfar Barnard L,  Timu-Parata C, Wilson N. Public Health Expert, 20 May 2022.

To read the report in full, go to:

https://blogs.otago.ac.nz/pubhealthexpert/the-urgent-need-for-a-covid-19-action-plan-for-schools-in-aotearoa-new-zealand/

 

Heather Barker Vermeer

Heather has worked as a journalist, writer and editor in England and Aotearoa New Zealand for over 20 years. She fell in love with words when she received a 'Speak & Spell' tech toy for Christmas in 1984.

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