Everyone in Australia’s many locked-down communities wants to know the answer to one question: when will life start returning to normal? For the millions of parents juggling their work commitments with home-schooling their children, a return to normal means a return to the classroom.
Whenever the school gates reopen it’s likely that many students, particularly those in primary school, will walk through them unvaccinated.
At the same time, children account for a significant proportion of infections. In Victoria, 45% of infections are in children and teenagers, while people aged 19 and under make up 30% of those infected in New South Wales.
The combination of continuing infections in children, and a low vaccination rate, means the school experience children return to could be different from the one they left.
For more than a year, schools across the world have been implementing a range of measures to try to slow the spread of Covid-19. In the UK, classes were divided into smaller groups or bubbles, and some schools implemented staggered start times. In France, some primary school classes were split into groups of eight to 15 students, alternating between half-days at school and at-home learning. In Germany, year groups have different break times.
With the new school year about to start in some parts of the world, schools and governments are looking for more ways to make school safer. In New York City, all classrooms will have two air purifiers next year. In India’s Tamil Nadu state, schools have been asked to allow 50% of their students back on a rotating basis. Larger schools will also have staggered timetables.
Rapid antigen testing may be another feature of post-lockdown schools. It’s being used in the UK and in some US states, and in July the NSW government flagged the possible use of the tests to allow year 12 students to return to face-to-face learning.
Whatever measures are used to reduce the risks when students return to schools, experts agree on two points: ventilation will be key, and the time to start planning is now.
“We need to be acting now for later as well as now for now, it is urgent, this is the best time to start planning for a return to school,” says Prof Sharon Goldfeld of the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute.
“We are concerned the needs of children and adolescents are not being put front and centre here.”
Goldfeld, also a professor at the University of Melbourne, cites a recent UK study showing infections in schools more or less match the infection rate in the broader population. While this means schools may not be the hotbeds of transmission many fear, it highlights the need for them to receive the same priority as workplaces and other settings when it comes to reducing infections.
“We also need to think about the adults in a child’s life and make sure they’re as vaccinated as possible,” she says.
She says mask use is an important, cheap and effective way to reduce transmission in schools, and that proper ventilation will be critical.
Associate Prof Donna Green of the University of NSW has co-authored research that shows High-Efficiency Particulate Air (HEPA) grade air purifiers, which can clear potentially infectious aerosols, could be installed in all NSW classrooms and other shared spaces for around $50m.
The HEPA filters can also help reduce the risk of asthma attacks, especially in situations where opening a window might not be an option, such as during bushfires or in areas with high levels of air pollution.
Green, like Goldfeld, stresses the importance of acting now.
“If we put the order in now we could be 80% covered by the time schools reopen,” she says.
“Something will need to happen if schools are to go back as safely as possible. If you have a situation where there’s bushfire smoke or air pollution, and then children are unvaccinated with Delta circulating, it is inevitable we will see asthmatic children rushed to hospital. We need to do something now to reduce that risk. This should be in the planning stage.”
While measures such as HEPA filters can reduce transmission, it is probable that isolated school lockdowns will be a feature of life in the medium term.
“We need to think urgently about how we manage the risk of transmission in schools, and the disruption from continuing lockdowns, which may continue into 2022,” says Jordana Hunter, the education program director at the Grattan Institute.
“There needs to be a mindset shift. Remote teaching and learning is not a temporary situation to grit your teeth and get through, it is going to be a reality for some time. The levels of online teaching are patchy, some schools are offering excellent programs while others are not, and children’s education could be stalling. We need to move heaven and earth to improve the consistency.”
Architects are now turning their attention to making new schools safer and more flexible, as well as ways to adapt existing facilities to allow for social distancing.
“The immediate challenge we have is how to make existing classrooms bigger,” says Jo Simmons of Leaf Architecture.
She says one possibility is the retrofitting of operable walls between classrooms, which can be removed to double the space. The walls could be used in tandem with scheduling changes, which could see staggered break times and a split between classroom and home time.
Andrew Pender of architecture and design firm PMDL says thinking about schools needs to move beyond the classroom, to encompass other spaces that are not in use during the school day.
“In regional areas, the primary school might be a short walk from the school of arts. Learning doesn’t have to happen in a designated classroom, it could be in a community centre or a church hall,” he says.
Simmons and Pender both highlight the inflexibility of school furniture, including desks designed to seat two or more children, as another barrier to distancing.
While it’s still unclear what post-lockdown schooling will look like, Goldfeld stresses the need for preparations to start immediately.
“It’s like a bushfire, you can’t do much when the bushfire is bearing down on you, but if you think ahead you can do controlled burning, and we are in the controlled burning phase,” she says. “We don’t want to look at our children in the future and regret our lack of action now.”