School closures must only be used as a measure of last resort to control the spread of COVID-19 in the community, the Royal Australasian College of Physicians (RACP) has warned state and territory governments.
The RACP has said that government measures to close schools for a period longer than the usual two-week holiday would have a ‘serious impact’ on the mental health and wellbeing of students, and be worse for those living with a disability or who came from disadvantaged backgrounds.
RACP spokesperson Dr Asha Bowen argued that while there was little evidence to show that schools were high-transmission environments for children, all teachers and other school staff should be given priority access to the COVID-19 vaccine to ensure that essential education services were able to continue.
“Having vaccinated educational staff will assist in quelling the anxiety around risk and increase the inclination towards letting schools remain open during snap lockdowns,” Dr Bowen said.
The paediatrician noted that the importance of school for children and young people was about more than being a place of learning — for most students, she said, it was a place for connecting with friends and to access an important support network.
“We should be doing everything we can to avoid an extension to school holidays as a measure to contain the spread of COVID-19,” Dr Bowen said.
“A range of measures can be undertaken to manage the health risks associated with schools remaining open such as avoiding large gatherings, minimising adult mixing on the school campus, mask use, and staggering the start and end of the school day.
“Clear protocols for schools on hygiene measures, use of protective equipment, cleaning and physical distancing remain essential,” she said.
Findings of a new study published by the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute (MCRI) on Wednesday showed that two in five young people in Australia have experienced mental health problems and one in five had suicidal thoughts during the course of the pandemic.
The institute conducted a survey of 267 young people aged between 14-17 years about their experience of Victoria’s second lockdown between June and September last year.
MCRI researcher Dr Ali Fogarty said that normal lockdown symptoms such as irritability, flatness and tiredness were more serious for a considerable number of young people. Furthermore, two in three young people who reported poor mental health said they had not spoken with a health professional during lockdown.
“Despite high rates of mental health problems, many young people experiencing depression or anxiety did not have access to adequate mental health support,” Dr Fogarty said.
“Many were not engaged with support because of waiting times to see school counsellors and psychologists, lack of a private space at home to talk via telehealth and fears and worries about the process of talking to a health professional.”
According to Bowen, the federal government must step up and play a leadership role on the issue of vaccinating Australia’s teachers. She urged the government to collaborate with state counterparts and the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee to develop a national mitigation plan that will ensure schools stay open for learning.
Bowen added that the RACP was also concerned about the additional economic and psychological stress that school closures would place on families, potentially increasing the risk of family conflict and violence at home.
“[Blanket closure of schools] also place unintended strain on the health care system as health care staff need to attend to childcare and home schooling,” she said.