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Masks to stay on in schools for four more weeks

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Students and teachers will have to wear masks in schools for at least four more weeks when the new term begins on Monday, authorities have announced, as South Australia recorded 3463 new COVID cases today and seven deaths.

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Premier Peter Malinauskas revealed the decision this afternoon, following an earlier meeting of State Cabinet’s Emergency Management Council.

“We have decided today that the wearing of masks will be maintained within the school setting for four more weeks upon the resumption of school next week,” he said.

“That is a position we have adopted consistent with the health advice but also acknowledging the sincere desire amongst all concerned – parents, students and educators as well – that mask-wearing in schools does come to an end at an appropriate and safe time.

“Wearing masks for kids in schools isn’t convenient. It isn’t natural and I certainly feel for our students that are going to have to continue to wear masks for another four weeks but we are making this decision in their best interests, in the best interests of trying to minimise the disruption to the learning environment that we’ve seen COVID impose upon them for a sustained period now.”

Malinauskas said it was a “difficult” decision but that authorities needed more time to improve ventilation in schools including the purchase of 1000 additional air purifiers at a cost of $530,000.

He also said the decision was necessary to avoid further disruption from school closures.

“Our task here is trying to get the balance right – allowing schools to return to normal, giving relief to teachers and students alike by relieving them of mask mandates but at the same time minimising the disruption to schools and allowing them to operate and remain open,” he said.

Masks will remain mandatory indoors for students in years 7 to 12 and all school staff. They remain encouraged for students in years 3 to 6.

Mask mandates for the general public were removed on April 15, except in high-risk settings, but a decision about schools was delayed until today to give authorities time to monitor COVID activity during the school holidays and seek further advice.

“I don’t like the fact that most adults now don’t have to wear masks generally speaking but our school students will, I don’t particularly like that but we are going to do everything we can to relieve students of the mask mandate in four weeks’ time but do it in a safe way,” Malinauskas said.

Outside of schools, masks are also still required in high-risk settings including hospitals, aged care facilities, residential disability facilities, public transport and ride-sharing services, planes, indoors at airports and correctional services facilities.

Education Minister Blair Boyer accused the former government of failing to act on a major ventilation audit.

He said only 200 of 652 schools had had necessary works done, including allowing windows to open.

Malinauskas said he had now ordered work to be done on the other 452 schools over the next four weeks.

“That work is now going to be accelerated over the course of the coming weeks to get our classrooms in such a position that there is adequate ventilation that then mitigates the need for mask wearing within the classroom setting,” he said.

The government also announced that vaccination hubs would open in 40 schools targeting children aged 5 to 11, to lift rates, with Boyer saying only 38 per cent in that age group had had their second dose.

“We’re also creating a system of online consent for parents to make sure that we can fast-track and streamline that process of encouraging kids… to go along and get their vaccination,” Boyer said.

It comes as SA Health reported 3463 new cases today, up from 3175 new infections yesterday.

Authorities also reported seven new deaths of people with COVID, aged from in their 70s to 90s.

Six deaths were reported on Monday.

SA Health says there are 254 people with COVID-19 in hospital, including 10 people in intensive care, with one person requiring a ventilator.

Today’s decision follows an announcement last week that South Australia will scrap seven-day isolation requirements for COVID close contacts from Saturday, April 30, bringing SA in line with other states.

Contacts will, however, be required to undertake five government-supplied rapid antigen tests over seven days, will have to wear masks when leaving the home and will be banned from high-risk settings such as hospitals and disability care facilities.

People will also be required to notify their employers when they are close contacts and will be encouraged to work from home if they can.

Health Minister Chris Picton today told reporters that based on updated modelling, authorities were preparing for ongoing forecasts of more than 2000 cases a day and up to 200 hospitalisations.

“We are likely to see a significant number of cases for some time but it is manageable in our health system,” he said.

Picton said SA was “on track” to scrap the close contact isolation requirement on Saturday but he called for “common sense”.

“If you’re in a situation where you’ve been a close contact of someone with COVID-19 then this is not the time to go to nightclubs, this is not the time to go to weddings, this is not the time to go to gyms which we know are situations which can lead to significant spread in the community,” he said.

Before today’s decision on masks in schools was announced, Opposition Leader David Speirs said: “I’ve spoken to Peter Malinauskas at a very high level about this over the weekend, and simply said to Peter that if there were decisions to be made that were backed up by good quality health advice from the Chief Public Health Officer that saw us step back from those mandates around masks, this Opposition would certainly support those.”

“The feedback I get from the community is people do want to carefully, bit by bit, see these restrictions melt away into the future, and where the advice from a medical and scientific point of view supports that, we will support the Malinauskas Government to achieve that,” he said.

Following today’s announcement, Opposition education spokesperson John Gardner said “Labor argued for a dramatic increase in the use of air purifiers in January and have only managed to add another 1000 to the 4000 we already bought”.

“Peter Malinauskas needs to own his decisions – many schools have shut their doors and tens of thousands of students have had their learning impacted by increasing COVID cases since he became Premier more than a month ago,” he said.

“Peter Malinauskas has claimed credit for the removal of every COVID restriction that has given more freedoms to our community, but wants to pass the buck for Labor’s failure to develop a plan for removing the requirement for masks in schools.”

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