A national approach is needed to protect children from COVID-19 when returning to ECEC
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A national approach is needed to protect children from COVID-19 when returning to ECEC

by Freya Lucas

October 25, 2021

Analysis from the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute has outlined the case for broad mitigation measures needed to reduce the risk of COVID-19 transmission in early learning settings and schools as Australia enters the next phase of lifting restrictions and ‘living with COVID-19’.


Key findings from the research include: 


  • The Delta variant is more transmissible than earlier variants. 


  • Despite increased number of infections, internationally and in Australia most children and adolescents continue to have no, or only mild symptoms. 


  • Children and adolescents living with some pre-existing health conditions, including obesity, and those living in disadvantage, low socioeconomic or minority ethnic status have an increased risk of severe disease from COVID-19. 


  • In ECEC and school settings, transmission is largely seen between adults and from adults to children. Although child-child transmission also occurs, the highest risk of transmission remains within households. 


  • There are Australian modelling reports related to the easing of restrictions, which includes re-opening of schools. In addition, there are real-world surveillance data from other countries that have returned to face-to-face learning in the context of community transmission, that provide useful learnings for Australia


Commenting on the analysis, Thrive by Five has called on the Federal Government to release comprehensive national guidelines and rules to help early childhood education and care (ECEC) centres better protect children under five years of age, their parents, early educators, and the wider community from COVID-19 infection.


There must also be greater support and resources for addressing the impact of the pandemic on vulnerable children under five who may otherwise never catch up in their early learning and social development, and risk long-term mental health issues, Thrive by Five said.


“Australia needs its early learning centres and schools to reopen, but we can’t just swing open the gates and hope for the best,” Thrive by Five CEO Jay Weatherill said. “There must be a national plan and rules for safely reopening.”


“The Murdoch Children’s Research Institute has today described the Victorian Government’s ‘three-Vs’ plan – ventilation, vaccination and vital COVID-safe steps – as essential to further minimise the risk of infection and help prevent further school closures.”


Along with children the researchers also highlighted the importance of vaccination for early learning educators and school staff, parents and carers.


“The Federal Government and state governments should consider the analysis released today, the Victorian plan and other best available evidence from here and overseas to produce opening guidelines and rules that can be put in place by early childhood education and care settings as soon as possible to mitigate the risk of infection,” Mr Weatherill said.


“Every early childhood education and care service needs to have clear, unambiguous rules on COVID-19, and these must be clear to all staff and families. It is not good enough to require services to interpret broader community guidelines.”


ECEC services, most importantly, need access to funding to improve ventilation and air quality, undertake rapid antigen testing, and increase staffing to be COVID-safe and this needs to be provided urgently as NSW and VIC start to open up, to be followed by QLD and other states later.


“Every child should be as safe as possible when accessing essential early learning, regardless of their postcode,” Mr Weatherill said. “National guidelines and rules for early learning are urgent and important, addressing the impact of the pandemic on learning and development is vital.”


“Children, particularly in NSW and Victoria, have missed out a vast range of opportunities from early learning, from development driven by play-based learning to social interaction and support from educators. If the government doesn’t give young children support now, they may never catch up,” Mr Weatherill said.


To access the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute (MCRI) brief please see here

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