When it comes to what it takes to force the closure of a school because of coronavirus, there’s no simple checklist that applies across all of Australia at all times.
Instead, the states and territories make their own decisions based on their own particular circumstances at that moment, while guided by a common set of principles.
We spoke to Terry Slevin, the chief executive officer at the Public Health Association of Australia and an adjunct professor at Curtin University and ANU, to talk us through it.
The states and territories are all following the same guidelines
The Australian Health Protection Principal Committee, which is made up of all the chief health officers from around the country, has broad advice for the management of cases of coronavirus at schools.
It says that in the event of a coronavirus outbreak at or near a school, the school will get “detailed information and specific advice on additional measures” from state public health units.
Mr Slevin says allowing decisions to be made at a local level had served “very, very well” in many cases.
He pointed to the different circumstances faced by states and territories around Australia right now.
The basic idea of dealing with coronavirus cases is the same everywhere
Mr Slevin says there is a standard protocol that has to be applied to every case of coronavirus in Australia.
But the speed of the response, and the ability to implement those principles, differs depending on the local circumstances.
One of the factors for responding to cases is the resources available at that time
For Mr Slevin, the case of a cleaner at Logan’s Parklands Christian College testing positive demonstrated Queensland’s ability to respond “extraordinarily quickly”.
That response included establishing a fever clinic on the school grounds.
Mr Slevin said given Queensland’s low numbers of coronavirus cases, it had teams capable and ready to go who weren’t overwhelmed.
By contrast, he says when there are hundreds of cases a day and authorities are trying to keep up with “what happened yesterday”, then you don’t have a team of people ready to respond to a single circumstance.
Ultimately, Mr Slevin says the trigger for shutting down a school is if there’s any risk to that community
In the case of a student having been at school with coronavirus symptoms and testing positive, Mr Slevin says looking at whether the school needs to shut down and for how long is going to be one of the “most immediate considerations” for officials.
That would be looked at alongside other responses, including deep cleaning and contact tracing.
Mr Slevin said there many layers of complexity in a school environment, including a range of possible contacts, from parents dropping kids off to students in playgrounds.
Another consideration is that older children are more likely to be diagnosed than younger children.
There are also cases outside a school that could nevertheless have an impact — for instance, possible exposures to coronavirus involving a parent.
The fact that unique circumstances need to be taken into account is reflected in states’ school response protocols.
For instance, the Queensland Government website says “if there is a confirmed case of COVID-19 in a school community, the school may need to temporarily close”, while in NSW cases involving a student or staff member “may require closing the school”.
Parents should actively seek out information
Mr Slevin says authorities will do their best to give information, but this should not be relied upon.
Mr Slevin said parents in New South Wales should likewise be considering how they can reduce the prospect of the transmission of coronavirus within their family and school communities.