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SA school reopening in limbo as COVID cases climb

updated | Prime Minister Stephen Marshall said it was “too early to say” whether South Australian schools will open on January 31 or move to distance learning as coronavirus cases increase, but the state government has “emergencies” in place if needed.

With more than 6,000 active cases of COVID-19 in the state and a record 1,472 infections yesterday, Marshall indicated this morning that Education Secretary John Gardner and Department of Education CEO Rick Pierce would meet “to consider plans to resume classes in the first semester.”

“It’s still too early to say exactly what that will look like,” Marshall told ABC Radio Adelaide.

Pressed about whether schools will reopen for on-site learning on January 31 as scheduled, Marshall said, “I don’t want to speculate on that.”

“We will get more information about that day in the National Cabinet,” he said.

“We will do everything in our power to protect our students and teachers.

“The good news is that we have put a lot of effort in the last year to prepare for this opportunity for home schooling.

“We are ready, we have all the contingencies if we want to activate it, but it’s too early to say at this point.”

The cloud over whether schools will open for the first term comes as the state government continues to encourage public and private sector employees to work from home.

It also comes with a vaccine rollout for children ages 5 to 11 that won’t start until January 10.

Children within this age group will not be fully vaccinated by the time they return to school, given that the Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunization has recommended those aged 5 to 11 receive their vaccine doses at eight-week intervals.

Lara Golding, head of the Australian Education Consortium, said teachers were “now concerned about what it might be like when school starts in a month”.

She also said primary school children were “particularly concerned” because they “are not yet eligible for vaccination and are less likely to be able to observe social distancing and use of masks.”

“If the health advice is that homeschooling should occur until vaccination rates for all school-age children reach an acceptable level, then that health advice should be heeded,” Golding said.

“If schools are open, the government must ensure that all possible measures are taken to ensure health and safety. This includes the use of masks, air purifiers, ventilation systems and measures that enable social distancing.”

She highlighted that other states have introduced lower class sizes and choppy attendance to ensure social distancing can occur.

Meanwhile, Carolyn Grantscalence, chief executive of the charter school association, said the state’s charter schools would follow SA Health’s advice.

“It seems to me that it’s a very fast moving situation,” she said.

“We expect that SA Health, much closer to the time when schools are due to return, will issue some guidance to schools.

“If the health advice is that schools should stay at home and learn at home, then charter schools will follow that advice.”

Grantskalns, whose association represents 105 charter schools across South Australia, said while the sector has favored in-person learning, interstate schools have shown that successful distance learning is possible despite the challenges.

“In general, learning from home is still a successful education,” she said.

“While it is challenging for families for a whole host of obvious reasons, it is not something to be afraid of in terms of the progress students can make.

“No one would prefer to go there, but if that’s what we have to do to keep everyone safe, that’s what they’ll do.”

A spokesperson for the Ministry of Education said they will “Provide more information to the community as quickly as possible.”

“With the increase in Omicron cases in South Australia, we have been working through a range of scenarios for the start of the 2022 school year,” the spokesperson said.

Our plan and response continues to evolve along with placing Omicron here in South Australia. But our focus remains on the safety of our children, students and staff.

“We clearly prefer face-to-face education, however, and are prepared for online learning periods if needed, as we made clear last year.”

Golding said the administration has ended the state public school ventilation audit despite not consulting the union about its findings.

In Term 4 this year, South Australian schools remain closed for cleaning after a positive case was registered.

Several school graduation events and an entire school complex in Wellunga have been identified as sites of close contact this month, leading hundreds to be quarantined over the Christmas holidays.

There are currently at least 6,316 active cases of COVID-19 in South Australia, according to SA Health.

As of Tuesday, 65.6 per cent of South Australian children aged 12-16 were fully vaccinated, while 74.4 per cent had received at least one dose, according to federal government health data.

A survey conducted by the Commissioner for Children and Youth in October found that about 20 percent of children over the age of 12 are unlikely to get vaccinated due to concerns about needles, potential side effects and their parents’ opinions that fuel hesitation.

Completing the government support package for hospitality and gyms

The state government is preparing to announce details of a support package for hospitality venues and gyms, after sectors were hit by a raft of new restrictions this week.

Marshall said the state government is “on the right track” to finalize a hospitality support package by the end of the week and will meet with Treasurer Rob Lucas today to iron out the details.

“We should be able to finalize this package to support those companies, especially those companies in the hospitality and fitness sector that have been hit hard,” he said.

“It is interesting that general retail sales in South Australia and around the country appear to be holding up very well.

“But there are pockets that are significantly affected and we want to support them just as we have supported businesses during the pandemic.”

The state government on Christmas Eve canceled plans to lift restrictions on guest venues and nightclubs on December 28 due to an increase in Omicron cases across the state.

On Boxing Day, the Prime Minister announced that hospitality venues would return to a density limit of one person per four square metres and that gyms would be limited to one person per seven square metres.

Marshall won’t be drawn to whether the incoming support package includes tax breaks or cash grants, saying he doesn’t want to pre-empt advertising.

The state government in August announced a $3,000 cash grant scheme for companies in eligible industry sectors that have experienced a turnover of 30 percent or more as a result of continued restrictions on density.

An additional $1,000 CBD grant was made available in the August package, recognizing the “increasing impact” on the city’s business as a result of people working from home.

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