Omicron clouds loom on return to classroom

Andrew Brown |

Uncertainty remains on how students would be able to return safely to schools with rising Omicron cases, as health authorities determine the best approach.

The country’s leading medical advisory panel met on Monday to discuss the start of the 2022 school year, ahead of a national cabinet meeting on Thursday.

NSW and Victoria have backed a federal government push for a coordinated approach, with the state’s premiers meeting virtually on Monday to discuss virus-related issues including schools.

Queensland has postponed the start of its school year by two weeks, with the state’s authorities saying the delay was due to increasing COVID-19 infections and to allow more students to get vaccinated before classes resume.

South Australia officials have said it was likely rapid antigen tests would be needed to help teachers keep track of the virus.

The school year starts at the end of January, roughly the same time cases of the Omicron variant are expected to peak.

Children aged five to 11 were able to receive the Pfizer vaccine from Monday, with an estimated 2.3 million children now eligible for their first dose.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison said plans for the return to school would be worked through in talks this week.

“It’s obviously a key issue for parents as they are thinking about their children going back to school in a few weeks’ time,” he told reporters in Canberra.

“We’ll look to have those arrangements very clear by the time that occurs.”

Mr Morrison reiterated his preference for students to be back in the classroom on the first day of term, rather than learning from home.

The country’s chief medical officer Professor Paul Kelly said health-based issues would be taken into account before a unified approach was decided.

“It’s related to balancing the wider aspects and the importance of face-to-face learning in schools with the risk of COVID,” he said.

Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese said he wanted to see students back in the classroom and called for people to follow the health advice surrounding the return.

“No one wants any restrictions to be in place for one day more than necessary … but what keeps happening is that reality catches up with rhetoric,” Mr Albanese said.

“We need to deal with the health issues first and that will lead to … a more normal way of life, including children being back at school.”

Australia on Monday passed one million total COVID-19 cases since the pandemic began two years ago.

Of those cases, one-quarter have been recorded in the last four days.