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COVID shuts classrooms as excursions and camps on hold

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Outbreaks of COVID-19 have forced classroom shutdowns at four South Australian primary schools this week, as outdoor education operators plead for the return of excursions and camps.

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Education Department chief executive Rick Persse said four reception classes had closed with students sent home for a week at Mitcham Primary School, East Marden Primary School, Craigburn Primary School at Flagstaff Hill and Stirling North Primary School at Port Augusta.

“These are all actually reception classes where we’ve had sort of multiple cases,” Persse told ABC Radio this morning.

“With the prevalence of cases in a couple of these classrooms the decision’s been taken to close that classroom for four days and strongly recommend that parents have their children PCR tested so we look to be back in business face-to-face on Monday.

“The kids will have a test yesterday and or today and then another one on Friday or Saturday. Two negative results and we’re back to go.”

Asked to comment on possible reasons why the clusters had all occurred in reception classes, Persse said “I’m not qualified to give health advice on this”.

“I got involved on one the weekend before last when we came back with our Receptions at one of our schools in the west,” he said.

“What’s actually happened is that the kids they’re really – they’re asymptomatic. They’ve got little or not symptoms.

“Because they’re five they’re not wearing masks, they’re kind of all over each other, excited for their first day of school and so on…

“These are all these variables that SA Health and we take into account about making a sensible risk management decision to stop any further or arrest any further infection.

“But we’ve had a couple of kids test positive that had no idea they were unwell so look that’s not always the case and we want to stress that getting a PCR test is important and keeping your child away from school if they’re showing even the mildest of symptoms is what we need parents to do.”

Students in reception and years 1, 7, 8 and 12 have been back in classrooms for two weeks while other year levels resumed face-to-face learning this week.

Persse said on average across the public school system, about 130 students and 36 staff were away each day due to COVID reasons – either infected, isolated or caring for someone – as newly-recorded absences.

In total, counting students and staff away for consecutive days, the numbers were much higher; about 1 per cent of students and 400 staff a day.

“We’ve got to put this in context – in public schools and preschools alone, we’re circa 200,000 people and about 31,000 staff so these in the scheme of things are numbers that we can manage,” Persse said.

“Obviously we take this seriously, very, very seriously, but let’s remember we’re dealing with some very large numbers.”

It comes as Outdoors SA, the peak body for outdoor adventure and recreational activities in SA, begs the State Government to allow camps and excursions to resume in schools again.

Outdoors SA spokesperson Luke Duncan said schools had cancelled or deferred camps and excursions in response to a “confusing” SA Health recommendation that was “counter to its own advice to schools to preference outdoor learning”.

“It’s nonsensical to say that you can have 1200 students in a school environment but you can’t have 20 students going for a bush walk in Belair National Park,” Duncan told InDaily.

“If they’ve got full capacity back at schools, there might need to be some form of altered approach to camping, but camping one student per tent in a tent camping environment, dining outdoors, doing outdoor activities whether it’s surfing or kayaking or anything like that, that is far safer than sitting in a classroom doing maths.”

Under current advice, schools have been told to put excursions and camps on hold until week 5 of term, with “ongoing discussions” about when they will be allowed to resume.

Duncan wants camps and excursions to be allowed to return immediately and is calling for the State Government to provide a financial relief package for the “crippled sector”, similar to a $3.5 million fund announced recently in Western Australia for affected operators there.

Duncan is also the general manager for Wilderness Escape Outdoor Adventures which runs school camps and outdoor education programs.

He said the organisation had already had to cancel or postpone 20 programs for the first four weeks of term, worth about $400,000 in revenue.

“The Department of Education did not consult with our sector and left schools to fend for themselves in interpreting a ‘recommendation’.

“Because they have not issued a directive, schools have had no choice but to dishonour contracts and cancel services that have been booked and arranged for up to twelve months.

“It’s a disaster. We keep getting told by ministers and departments to talk to someone else. Meanwhile our sector is losing millions of dollars every day.”

Duncan said while school camps and excursions were deemed “high risk” here, they were going ahead in Victoria and New South Wales.

Andrew Govan, the chief executive of Wilderness Escape Outdoor Adventure, said “we have done everything the government has asked and still our camps are shut down”.

“We have lost hundreds of thousands of dollars in revenue. This places immense stress upon us and our workers.

“It’s also not fair on young people. Camps and excursions provide exciting and engaging outdoor learning opportunities and make space for friendships that last a lifetime. Thousands of students are missing out.”

A spokesperson for the Education Department said “public schools have had success in managing the spread of COVID-19 by following the expert health advice”.

“Currently the advice doesn’t support school based camps, excursions and incursions due to a number of higher risk situations, including increased visitation to school sites, dormitory sleeping, extended bus travel and common food preparation,” the spokesperson said in a statement.

“Outdoor education is a really important and valued part of a child’s schooling.

“We are in ongoing discussions with SA Health regarding our settings and we will step back these restrictions as soon as the health advice supports it.”

Treasurer Rob Lucas said: “The Government has recently announced two further rounds of financial assistance costing about $90 million and businesses in this sector are eligible to apply. Some businesses in this sector have already received up to $40,000 in assistance.”

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