As governments and big businesses step up their efforts to convince us that “living with COVID” is both preferable and inevitable, a disinformation campaign is under way to downplay the risks to children.
The Delta variant has made few workplaces riper for transmission than a classroom. ABC health journalist Norman Swan, in a recent Coronacast episode, revealed that New South Wales data show the Delta variant infection rate to be ten to fifteen times higher in young people than was the case with the pre-Delta breakouts. And that’s before students are forced to return to school.
Natural air ventilation within most classrooms is poor, even with windows and doors left open all day. When on-site learning resumes, around 25 people will sit in these rooms for 50 minutes or more at a time. They then often move to other rooms with other students for different lessons throughout the day. Corridors in some schools are as packed as mosh pits. In this environment, masks and staggered bell times, although important contributions to minimising spread, can have only minimal impact.
As schools in the Northern Hemisphere return from their summer break, there are early signs of a rapid spike in cases. Scotland’s population is similar to Sydney’s. So were the daily new case numbers before schools reopened. As students returned to their classrooms largely unvaccinated, Public Health Scotland reported that, in the first week back, 2,496 students and 481 school staff tested positive. By week two, Scotland’s total daily case number jumped fourfold.
The “learn to live with COVID” advocates claim that the disease remains a mild illness in children. But, while research remains in its infancy, a major peer-reviewed study of long COVID in children aged between 6 and 16, published in April in Acta Paediatrica, found that more than half of the children assessed “reported at least one symptom” lasting more than 120 days, and 43 percent experienced at least one symptom more than 60 days after infection.
Symptoms included “fatigue, muscle and joint pain, headache, insomnia, respiratory problems and palpitations”. It is unclear how long these symptoms will last. A year? Decade? Lifetime? Do the “live with COVID” advocates even care?
In New South Wales, all classes are scheduled to return to the classroom by 8 November. Australian Medical Association WA President Mark Duncan-Smith says the plan “is neglecting our children and bordering on child abuse”.
In addition to a COVID-zero strategy and the mandatory vaccination of school staff, we need air ventilation audits in all school spaces. It is possible that carbon-dioxide meters and High-Efficiency Particulate Air (HEPA) grade air filtration systems may need to be installed in every classroom across the country. This should be happening immediately. Yet, except for Victorian Premier Daniel Andrew’s stated intention to audit air ventilation in schools, there are no plans across the country.
There is a precedent. New York is mandating two portable air filters in each classroom from next year. University of New South Wales researchers estimate that it would cost just $50 million to install HEPA air purifiers in “all NSW primary and secondary school classrooms, and other shared spaces within schools”.
My school union branch’s commitment to keeping COVID-19 out of our community remains strong. We have unanimously passed motions calling for an audit of the school’s air ventilation and the inclusion of students into the national vaccination target, and opposing year 12 students returning on site for statewide tests while COVID remains in the community.