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Masks ditched in schools as emergency declaration scrapped

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South Australia’s major emergency declaration to deal with COVID has been lifted – along with a mask mandate for schools – in a milestone shift for how the state manages the ongoing pandemic.

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Premier Peter Malinauskas, state emergency coordinator Grant Stevens and Health Minister Chris Picton met with Governor Frances Adamson a short time ago to advise her of the decision to lift the special powers, effective immediately, which have been in place for 793 days since the start of the pandemic and extended 28 times.

“This is an historic and significant moment for our state,” Malinauskas said in a statement.

“Today’s lifting of the major emergency declaration would not have been possible without the hard work and sacrifice of South Australians over the past two years.”

But the Premier warned “we cannot be complacent”.

“We must remember that the lifting of the major emergency declaration does not mean the pandemic is over,” he said.

“We must maintain vigilance to protect our community – that means getting vaccinated, wearing masks where required, getting tested if unwell, and quarantining while COVID positive.”

The announcement followed a meeting of the state’s emergency management council, which also decided to remove a mandate requiring secondary students and all staff to wear masks at school.

They’ll no longer be compulsory from next week.

Instead, masks will be “strongly recommended” for students in years 3 to 12 and all staff and adult visitors in schools.

“This is a very positive step forward for students and teachers,” Malinauskas said.

“We are in a stronger position in our schools after implementing a number of changes including the distribution of air purifiers, ventilation improvements and the establishment of vaccination hubs.”

The State Government said masks would only be required at a school in circumstances where one class reports 10 or more cases over seven days or where one school has five classes with five cases or more over seven days.

It comes as SA Health today reported 3482 new COVID infections and 232 patients in hospital, including nine people in intensive care.

SA Health also reported 14 new deaths, in “data reconciliation” from March 21 to May 22, of people aged between 30 and 90.

The major emergency declaration – which gave Stevens the power to decide the level of restrictions for the state – will be replaced by new laws, which passed parliament last week, allowing COVID-19 restrictions to remain in place.

“On behalf of the people of South Australia, I want to thank Grant Stevens for his extraordinary service as state coordinator since March 2020,” Malinauskas said.

“Without question, Commissioner Stevens’ effort has been one of the highest quality displays of leadership in our state’s history.

“South Australians are still alive today because of the work of Grant Stevens and (chief public health officer Professor) Nicola Spurrier.”

Premier Peter Malinauskas, flanked by Chris Picton (left) and Police Commissioner Grant Stevens, head to Government House this morning. Photo: Thomas Kelsall.

The Premier had previously stated he wanted the declaration to cease by the end of June but last week said it would likely have to be extended from its current May 28 expiry date for a few more weeks.

“Immediately after being elected, I committed to South Australians that the major emergency declaration would be lifted by June 30 – I’m very pleased we’ve been able to do this on May 24,” Malinauskas said today.

The new laws – amendments to the Public Health Act – enable restrictions such as isolation requirements, masks in high-risk settings and vaccination mandates for healthcare workers to remain in place without the declaration.

If any new restrictions – such as lockdowns or hospitality caps – are required, the emergency powers would need to be re-instated.

The crossbench-secured amendments to the Public Health Act include a parliamentary oversight committee to scrutinise how the laws are applied, along with an appeals mechanism for fines.

The new bill will allow maximum penalties of up to $75,000 for businesses and $20,000 and two years’ jail for individuals to be enforced for COVID-19 breaches.

The lifting of the school mask mandate comes as authorities continue to work to improve ventilation in schools.

A spokesperson for Education Minister Blair Boyer told InDaily in a statement that half of all schools identified needing ventilation remediation works had now had that work done.

“As one of many strategies used to manage risks associated with COVID-19 in schools and preschools, the department has issued work orders for ventilation remediation works at 653 schools and preschools,” the spokesperson said.

“Currently, 328 (50 per cent) of these sites have had natural ventilation completely remediated, which in practical terms means that around 3587 more rooms in our schools and preschools can now open their windows to bring in more fresh air.

“The contractors completing this work have advised that approximately 75 per cent of schools and preschools will have ventilation work completed by the end of May, with a target completion of the end of June.

“Unfortunately we’re playing catch-up in this area as this is work that should’ve been completed last year.

“Challenges in progressing this work include workforce availability, replacing (old) windows with new parts and undertaking this work at our more hard to reach sites.”

The government said it had also deployed an extra 1195 air purifiers to schools across the state.

Education Department statistics show that as of last Friday there were 3409 students and 652 staff absent from public schools infected with COVID.

The department said Henley High School, Playford International College, Port Augusta Secondary School and Yalata Anangu School had all had recent disruptions from COVID ranging from part school to whole school remote learning.

A new school vaccination program begins this Friday, with hubs at 40 primary schools help improve lagging rates in 5 to 11-year-olds.

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