Prime Minister Scott Morrison insists schools will remain open – for now – as governments across the country face increasing heat from parents opposed to the decision.
The ABC understands absenteeism – particularly in affluent areas – is as high as 30 per cent as parents struggle to understand why schools should stay open when social distancing is being encouraged elsewhere.
Mr Morrison said on Wednesday he was following the advice of the government’s health experts and young people were a low-risk group.
Closing schools would put pressure on health workers to stay at home to look after children, and hurt the economy more broadly, he said.
“The disruption that would occur from closures [of schools] around this country would be severe.
“Let’s keep our heads as parents.
“What do I mean by severe? Tens of thousands of jobs could be lost, if not more,” he said.
“The impact on the availability of health workers – a 30 per cent impact on the availability of health workers.”
The pressure on governments from angry and concerned parents demanding school closures has been immense.
School holidays could be extended
The federal and state governments have been discussing starting the Easter holidays a week early.
This would provide time to better prepare schools for an epidemic that could last six months.
The ABC understands plans were well advanced but have been delayed after Tuesday night’s national cabinet meeting.
A sharp rise in infections could mean it is back on the table.
Governments believe it is a sensible compromise that will avoid a more drastic shutdown.
The government has made clear that if schools closed now, it would likely be for six months.
In practice, that could mean many students needing to repeat their entire year of schooling.
Singapore, China held up as examples
Mr Morrison cited Singapore as a country that had successfully controlled the virus while keeping schools open.
A report from the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention examined the impact of school closures overseas and found short-term closures did not affect the spread of the virus.
“Available modelling data indicate that early, short to medium closures do not impact the epi curve of COVID-19 or available health care measures,” the report said.
“In other countries, those places who closed school (e.g. Hong Kong) have not had more success in reducing spread than those that did not (e.g. Singapore).”
The report said longer closures of eight to 20 weeks may have some impact on community spread, but other measures such as hand-washing and home isolation had a greater effect.
The same report also mentioned the danger of closing schools, saying it could lead to young people having greater contact with at-risk groups.
Australia’s chief health officer, Brendan Murphy, said there had also been few cases of coronavirus diagnosed in children in the Chinese province first affected by the outbreak.
“Only 2.4 per cent of the cases reported in Hubei province were in people under 19,” he said.
“Children have very, very few instances of clinical disease and, if they do, of even more severe disease.”
What about teachers?
Teachers who fall into higher-risk categories are having to make tough decisions about isolating from their families.
Others have criticised a lack of hygiene products on school grounds, which makes department guidance on social distancing difficult to carry out.
“Schools have been told to implement a range of social distancing measures, which include keeping a distance of 1.5 metres between persons and minimising physical contact where possible,” NSW Teachers Federation president Angelo Gavrielatos said.
“However, the design of many of our schools and the size of our classrooms make this impossible.
“The overcrowding of some schools also makes this impossible beyond the classroom.
“This is further amplified on wet days when children and their teachers have to remain indoors.”
Sydney Catholic school leaders want shutdown
Aside from a relatively small number of independent schools, the Catholic, independent and public school sectors had all been in support of keeping schools open.
That changed on Tuesday, when Catholic Schools Sydney – which represents 150 schools – broke ranks and called for school closures.
The ABC understands the Catholic sector has behind closed doors been pushing strongly for its schools to be shut.
The Prime Minister stressed all the states were unified.
“The health advice here, supported by all the premiers, all the chief ministers and my government, is that schools should remain open,” he said.
Professor Murphy said the virus affected children quite differently to influenza and other respiratory diseases, which could be quite severe in children.
He said, however, that it was not known whether children could spread the illness without showing symptoms, so schools needed to be made as safe as possible.
Sick children and teachers should not attend, large assemblies and other gatherings should be limited, and good hand hygiene should be enforced, he said.