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Back to school, office plans announced amid six more deaths, 3023 new cases

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UPDATED | The State Government is encouraging teachers in preschools to undertake surveillance COVID-19 testing, while some workers have been asked to return to the office from January 27 as the state recorded six more deaths and 3023 new cases.

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The number of new cases is a drop from yesterday’s figure of 3777, but the hospitalisation rate increased overnight by eight to 298.

Of those in hospital, 33 are in intensive care – up from 29 yesterday – and seven are on ventilators.

Premier Steven Marshall said this afternoon that over the past 24 hours, 6906 South Australians recovered from COVID-19, compared to the 3023 new infections.

He said interim modelling produced by Joshua Ross, a Professor of Applied Mathematics at the University of Adelaide, showed South Australia was “very likely to have had our peak already”.

He said when Ross finalised his modelling it would be published on the SA Health website, likely in the coming days.

“I’m increasingly hopeful that we have got on top of this very dangerous Omicron wave with the cooperation of all people in South Australia,” Marshall said.

Quarantine, testing requirements announced for schools

The Government has announced further detail about its back to school plan, including when and how students and teachers need to quarantine if a positive case is detected at their school.

Marshall said Ross had incorporated the school plans into his modelling, which showed there was “no spike, no noticeable jump whatsoever in (COVID cases) in terms of the students going back in February”.

“There will be some additional cases but it’s not a noticeable jump,” he said.

Under the plan, it is “strongly recommended” that early learning centre and preschool education and care staff undertake a rapid antigen test every Monday, Wednesday and Friday.

Marshall said the advice was based on advice given by chief medical officer Professor Paul Kelly at yesterday’s national cabinet meeting.

But he said there was “no advice which supported surveillance testing of students or staff outside of the early learning environment”.

“We will be providing surveillance testing for teachers in that early learning environment – preschools and childcare – they will be having tests provided to them for testing on Mondays, Wednesday and Fridays, but there will be no further surveillance or tests required across our school setting for teachers or for students,” he said.

The federal government agreed to support states and territories that wanted to implement surveillance testing for schools on a 50-50 cost-sharing basis, although national cabinet yesterday failed to reach a unified approach on return to school despite weeks of talks.

Marshall today said he was “not going to comment on what other states are doing”.

“They’ve made their own mind up with regards to how they use their rapid antigen tests,” he said.

Chief pubic health officer Professor Nicola Spurrier said rapid antigen tests were “not designed to be surveillance tests done on an irregular basis”.

“My recommendation has been not to use it once a week across our whole school setting,” she said.

“Lets have a look at where the best bang for our buck would be.

“In early childhood settings and preschools the children cannot be vaccinated… and of course kids that age cannot wear masks.

“There’s very little risk mitigation that you can do in those settings, so the evidence shows that if you are going to use rapid antigen tests in those screening or surveillance modes, then you have to do it at least three times a week or every second day.”

She said that “if a child gets symptoms they need to get tested with a PCR”, while “if a childcare worker or preschool worker gets symptoms they need to get a PCR as well”.

Meanwhile, Education Minister John Gardner said the Government would create a new form of close contact called a “classroom contact”, to manage quarantine requirements for students and teachers at schools.

He said if a student tests COVID-positive, their teacher would receive seven free rapid antigen tests.

To return to the classroom, the teacher must return a negative test result every morning before school for the seven days after being identified as a classroom contact.

“So long as they’re not symptomatic and so long as they return a negative test, they’ll be able to return to class,” Gardner said.

Parents of students would be notified and asked to monitor their child for symptoms.

Asymptomatic students would be allowed to return to the classroom, but they would be asked to avoid high-risk settings such as residential aged care homes, as well as COVID management plan events.

Classroom contacts would not be required to quarantine at home.

“They’ll be able to continue with their lives, they’ll be able to continue, based on the advice of Professor Spurrier and the SA Health team, offering a great learning for our students,” Gardner said.

It comes after the government announced students in Year 3 and above would be asked to wear masks while indoors.

Gardner encouraged parents to talk to their children about the need to wear masks, particularly those entering high school.

“This is something that is going to be very normalised for them very, very quickly,” he said.

Schools will return for Term 1 under a “hybrid” model from January 31.

Children of essential workers and those deemed vulnerable will be able to return on January 31, with reception students and those in years 1, 7, 8 and 12 returning to classrooms on February 2 – two days later than originally scheduled – while other years will learn remotely for the first two weeks of term one.

Today’s announcement comes with the Education Department still facing the prospect of strike action from the Australia Education Union, with a lack of planning and information about the use of RATs among the key issues cited by the public sector teachers group.

AEU members have until next Monday to vote on whether to strike. Marshall said it was “premature” for the union to be voting on the proposal before the State Government issues the full details of its back-to-school plan.

Schools have been provided with information about the government’s plan today.

Marshall encourages workers to return to office from January 27

Workplaces are now encouraged to allow 25 per cent of their staff to return to their worksite from January 27, provided they maintain a distance of at least one person per four-square-metres, under a “staged” return to normality.

Staff who return to the office are encouraged to wear masks, distance themselves from their colleagues and go outside for their breaks to limit the potential spread of COVID-19.

Marshall said the government urged employers to consider the vaccination status of their staff when issuing directions.

He said having people work from home since December had “changed completely the trajectory of the disease”.

“We will monitor the situation very carefully and then continue to ease that (advice) going forward,” he said.

“This is not a direction from the state coordinator – this is strong advice that we have provided.”

Chief public health officer Professor Nicola Spurrier said the public service would be asked to abide by the new advice, particularly those who work in open-plan offices.

Business SA chief executive Martin Haese welcomed the announcement.

“The CBD has been like a ghost town, with public servants and many corporates instructing their staff to work from home,” he said.

“As we reach the peak of cases, now is the time for this plan to be released.”

*This article originally said teachers and students in early childhood settings were recommended for surveillance testing. The recommendation applies only to education and care staff.

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