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SA school reopening in limbo as COVID cases climb

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UPDATED | Premier Steven Marshall says it’s “too early to say” whether South Australia’s schools will reopen on January 31 or move to remote learning as COVID cases surge, but the State Government has “contingencies” in place if required.

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With more than 6000 active COVID-19 cases in the state and a record 1472 infections recorded yesterday, Marshall this morning flagged that Education Minister John Gardner and Education Department Chief Executive Rick Persse would be meeting to “look at the plans for the resumption of school in term one”.

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

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

“We’ll get further information on that today at the national cabinet,” he said.

“We’ll take whatever action we can to protect our students and our teachers.

“The good news is that last year we put a lot of effort into being ready to have that opportunity for home-based schooling.

“We are ready, we’ve got all contingencies in place if we need to enact them, but it’s just too early to say at this stage.”

The cloud over whether schools will open for term one comes as the State Government continues to encourage public servants and private sector employees to work from home.

It also comes with the vaccine rollout for children aged five to 11 not due to begin until January 10.

Children within that age bracket will not be fully vaccinated by the time school returns, given the Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation has recommended those aged between five to 11 receive their vaccine doses in eight-week intervals.

Australian Education Union SA Branch president Lara Golding said teachers are now “concerned what the situation might be when school commences in a month”.

She also said primary school children were of “particular concern” as they are “not yet eligible for vaccinations and are less likely to be able to observe social distancing and mask usage”.

“If the health advice is that homeschooling needs to occur until vaccinations rates for all school-aged children reach an acceptable level, then that health advice must be heeded,” Golding said.

“If schools are open, the Government must ensure that every possible measure is taken to ensure health and safety. This includes mask usage, air purifiers and ventilation systems and measures to enable social distancing.”

She highlighted that other states had introduced reduced class sizes and staggered attendance to ensure social distancing could take place.

Meanwhile, Association of Independent Schools SA CEO Carolyn Grantskalns said the state’s independent schools would follow the advice of SA Health.

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

“We would expect that SA Health much closer to the time when schools are due to go back would issue some guidelines for schools.

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

Grantskalns, whose association represents 105 independent schools across SA, said while the sector’s preference was for learning to be in-person, schools interstate had shown that successful remote learning is possible despite its challenges.

“On the whole, learning from home has still been successful learning,” she said.

“While it’s challenging for families for a whole range of obvious reasons, it isn’t something to be feared in terms of the progress that students can make.

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

An Education Department spokesperson said they will “provide more information to the community as soon as possible”. 

“With Omicron cases increasing in South Australia, we’ve 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 the Omicron situation here in South Australia. But our focus continues to be the safety of our children, students and staff.

“Our clear preference is for face to face schooling, however, we are prepared for periods of online learning if required, as we demonstrated last year.”

Golding said the Department had finished a ventilation audit of the state’s public schools although the union had not been consulted on its results.

In term 4 this year, South Australian schools still closed for cleaning after recording a positive case.

Several school graduation events and a whole school assembly in Willunga were identified as close contact exposure sites this month, sending hundreds into quarantine over the Christmas break.

There are currently at least 6316 active COVID-19 cases in South Australia, according to SA Health.

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

A survey by the Commissioner for Children and Young People in October found around 20 per cent of children aged over 12 are unlikely to get vaccinated due to fears about needles, potential side-effects and their parents’ views fuelling reluctance.

State Govt finalising support package for hospitality, gyms

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

Marshall said the State Government was “on track” to finalise a support package for hospitality by the end of the week and would be meeting with Treasurer Rob Lucas today to iron out the details.

“We should be able to finalise that package to support those businesses, particularly those businesses in hospitality and the fitness sector which have been most adversely affected,” he said.

“Interestingly the general retail sales in South Australia and right around the country seem to be holding up very well.

“But there are pockets which are very significantly affected and we want to support them just like we’ve supported businesses right throughout the pandemic.”

The State Government on Christmas Eve scrapped plans to lift restrictions on hospitality venues and nightclubs on December 28 due to the surge in Omicron cases across the state.

On Boxing Day, the premier announced that hospitality venues would return to a one-person per four square metre density limit and gyms would be restricted to a one-person per seven square metre limit.

Marshall would not be drawn on whether the incoming support package involved tax relief or cash grants, saying he didn’t want to pre-empt the announcement.

The State Government in August announced a $3000 cash grant scheme for businesses in eligible industry sectors that had experienced turnover declines of 30 per cent or more as a result of ongoing density restrictions.

An additional CBD-specific grant of $1000 was available in the August package, recognising the “increased impact” on city businesses as a result of people working from home.

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