This opinion piece was first published in the Sydney Morning Herald on 24 January 2022

Important questions remain unanswered as part of the safe return to school. As laureate professors in education and public health respectively, we believe returning to face-to-face schooling is vitally important. But it must be safe for students, teachers and the community.

For most young people, schooling is a key formative experience. The recent disruptions to schooling will potentially have a lasting impact on students. The mental health impacts of living through a pandemic on children, their families and the general community must also not be forgotten.

On the other hand, emerging studies suggest despite the increased community anxiety and stress, suicide rates in young people have not risen and in fact may have fallen during the pandemic.

A plan to return to and keep schools open was a major talking point at national cabinet last week, but no national framework was agreed. The NSW government has announced its back-to-school plan requiring rapid antigen testing twice a week for all teachers and students.

NSW is banking on this rigorous testing as well as calling on accredited corporate staff along with retired teachers, principals and final-year students to fill gaps left by COVID-related staff shortages. The private sector has suggested it will ask parents to supervise classes, as is happening elsewhere in the world.

These policy announcements send two clear messages. One, that a new wave of COVID infections is inevitable, creating short-term disruptions, fear and anxiety. Two, that when it comes to keeping children in school, frankly, any warm body will do.

If the core principle of getting kids back into school is to ensure they receive quality learning experiences, then this is at odds with a policy that suggests anyone can teach. This is simply not the case. Being a teacher is challenging, no more so than during the pandemic, where teachers have gone above and beyond for their students and community.

Teachers have filmed and Zoomed lessons, prepared and even hand-delivered work packs, called students and families, and worried about those they haven’t been able to reach. They’ve pivoted back to classroom teaching and managed the disruptions of short-term closures while carrying the same anxieties as the rest of us.

The teachers we’ve spoken to don’t want to go back to remote learning, but they are rightly anxious. Like so many of us, there are teachers with underlying health conditions, family members who are immunocompromised, and who live in vulnerable communities. They want, and deserve, safe workplaces.

Scientific evidence in Australia and internationally continues to suggest children are at very low risk of becoming seriously unwell from COVID-19, including Omicron. While but severe outcomes rarely can occur, especially if unvaccinated, death is very rare and vaccines are protective. Parents too are anxious. A recent survey from The Parenthood found two-thirds of parents don’t believe it’s safe for students to return at the height of this wave of the pandemic.

This policy space is incredibly tricky. We must continue to be led by the best available public health advice.

It means accelerating the vaccine rollout for students and third doses for adults, prioritising the vulnerable. It means ensuring classrooms have adequate ventilation and high-quality masks (P2/N95) are worn. It means a rigorous testing and isolation regime.

Ensuring these things are in place means prioritising the safety of our school communities.

When a safe workplace can be assured, we must prioritise getting kids back in school. And have in place contingencies for children who are too vulnerable to come to school yet, such as those with immunodeficiency and who are not fully vaccinated, or catch the virus and are isolating.

If we must call on a workforce that has been out of the classroom for some years, then we need to ensure they are supported to deliver quality teaching. If we are concerned about the long-term impact this period will have on a teaching profession already under pressure and amid warnings of looming shortages, then we need to invest in programs that lift morale, efficacy and school culture.

Now, perhaps more than ever, students need teachers who can nurture their learning and their wellbeing. Teachers – new, retired, experienced or yet-to-graduate – should have access to the latest evidence on how to ensure strong outcomes for all students.

This time of year is normally one of excitement. Instead, we are faced with trepidation and an abundance of caution. We recognise the enormous challenges of juggling the economy, education, and health. We must do all we can to ensure students and teachers are not casualties; we must continue to heed the best scientific evidence available, in both health and education.

Laureate Professor Jenny Gore is the director of the Teachers and Teaching Research Centre at the University of Newcastle. 

Laureate Professor Nick Talley is a clinician researcher and the editor-in-chief of the Medical Journal of Australia.

This opinion piece was first published in the Sydney Morning Herald on 24 January 2022