A new report, cited by the chief medical officer as the federal government advocates the reopening of schools, says children are unlikely to transmit Covid-19 between each other or to adults.
The study by NSW Health’s Centre for Immunisation Research and Surveillance (NCIRS), released on Sunday, examined transmission of the virus in NSW schools and childcare centres between March and mid-April.
Examining the spread 18 of coronavirus cases (nine students and nine staff) from 15 schools, the report’s preliminary findings were that only one primary school student and one high school student “may have contracted Covid-19 from the initial cases at their schools”.
“No teacher or staff member contracted Covid-19 from any of the initial school cases,” the report added.
The low transmission rate was despite 735 students and 128 staff being “close contacts” of the initial 18 cases.
The study, which will soon be peer reviewed, says the NSW government’s announcement on 23 March to encourage parents to keep their children home from school “may have impacted the results of this investigation”.
“The findings from this detailed investigation are preliminary,” the report said. “However, they do suggest that spread of Covid-19 within NSW schools has been very limited.”
On Friday, the chief medical officer, Brendan Murphy, cited the report when he confirmed Australian Health Protection Principal Committee guidelines that insist there is no need for social distancing in classrooms.
In response to warnings from teachers unions against reopening schools, Scott Morrison told Sky News the risk for educators was “in the staff room” not the classroom.
The Australian Health Protection Principal Committee issued a document on Friday stating that in classrooms there is no need for the four-metre-rule which outlines how many people are allowed in an enclosed space, nor the 1.5-metre social distancing rule between people.
But the Australian Education Union remained concerned by the prospect of schools reopening on Friday, saying the document “provide little clarity about how governments are going to ensure a safe working environment for teachers, principals and support staff”.
“It is still not clear how governments expect schools to manage social distancing for adults,” the union’s federal president, Correna Haythorpe, said. “It is contradictory to have one set of rules for adults outside of the school gate and another inside.”
The union has called for a phased implementation of a return to normal business for schools.
In Victoria, which has taken the hardest line on the issue, schools remain shut in Victoria for all students except the children of essential workers.
The state’s chief health officer, Brett Sutton, said his advice had not changed on schools, despite the NSW study and calls from the Victorian Liberal opposition for schools to allow students and staff back to schools.
School will resume in Tasmania on Tuesday and students have been encouraged to attend school in South Australia, Western Australia and the Northern Territory.
In Queensland, the government is also facing calls from Queensland’s independent schools to allow all Year 11 and 12 students to return to school immediately. Schools are open only for students of essential workers and vulnerable children, otherwise they remain closed until May 22 in Queensland.
NSW has indicated schools will reopen for one day a week for all students from 11 May.
The NSW health minister, Brad Hazzard, said the new report showed “schools are amongst the safest places to be … and that obviously is a very important message to all of us who are parents”.
The report, led by NCIRS director Prof Kristine Macartney, said it was “notable that half of the initial cases that occurred in schools were in staff”, which was “consistent with the higher rate of Covid-19 seen in adults than in children”.
Macartney said the findings built on emerging data overseas showing children were not likely to spread the virus between themselves or to adults.
“A unique aspect of this work is that we were able to look specifically for spread in schools over many weeks and utilise additional testing methods,” she said.
The NSW government said that although school aged children represented around 16% of the NSW population, only 1.7% of Covid-19 cases had been recorded in this age group.