Delta study: Staff drive Covid spread in schools, childcare centres

A close look at the spread of the highly infectious strain in Australia’s education settings has turned up some surprising results.

Most of the Covid-19 spread in schools and early childcare centres during Australia’s Delta wave was driven by staff, new research reveals.

Murdoch Children’s Research Institute experts also said face masks for grade three students and above would help reduce the virus spread, while face masks for prep to grade two children was recommended but not “mandatory” given the challenge of getting them to comply.

The institute studied data from June 16 to July 31 when the Delta variant was spreading in NSW.

During this time, 34 students and 25 staff across 51 schools or early childhood education and care centres (ECEC) had Covid-19.

In NSW, the highest transmission risks were between staff members and from staff to children.

Child to child transmission was less common, but household transmission was very high.

Most Covid outbreaks in schools and ECEC centres occurred when attendance was restricted, suggesting cases may have been driven by essential workers and unvaccinated adults, researchers said.

Delta was about five times more transmissible than previous variants, but most children and adolescents continue to have no or only mild symptoms, researchers found.

Infections have since fallen in NSW — despite ECEC centres being open — suggesting even though there have been outbreaks in these settings, young children contribute little to the spread.

The institute’s research informed the return of students to Victorian classrooms and measures to keep schools Covid safe.

MCRI Associate Professor Margie Danchin urged schools and ECECs to adopt new state government measures as quickly as possible to curb the risk of spread and help avoid future school closures.

The “three-Vs” government plan includes vaccination of staff and students, improving ventilation, staggering school days start and finishing times, and trialling rapid antigen testing for staff and school attendees in high community transition areas and special schools.

Researchers said the rapid antigen testing of students deemed close contacts of Covid-19 cases was just as effective at preventing secondary infections as a 10-day isolation period.

They suggested it could be used for staff and students in high community transmission areas and special schools, with additional PCR testing of asymptomatic staff in hot spots and at special needs schools.

As well as vaccinating educators and school staff, parents and carers were urged to book their vaccinations, especially those whose children were among the first to start back at school such as VCE students, Associate Professor Danchin said.

Parents and carers were also urged not to delay booking vaccine appointments for their children, given low levels of vaccination uptake among 12 to 16-year-olds in Western Australia, South Australia and Tasmania.

MCRI Professor Sharon Goldfeld said the harms of school and ECEC centre closures on children had been substantial.

“Although Delta does not seem to cause more severe disease in children and Covid-19 is very rarely life threatening in young people, the indirect effects of the pandemic are having immediate and probably also long-term negative impacts on children’s mental health and education,” Professor Goldfeld said.

“ECEC centres and schools provide social, physical, behavioural, and mental health benefits and services. School closures disrupt the delivery of these services and impact learning.

“Closures also place economic and psychological stress on families, which can increase the risk for family conflict and violence.

“Off-site learning should only be a last resort, even as cases inevitably spike in the lead-up to the Christmas holidays.”

Originally published as Study of Delta strain in NSW schools, childcare finds most spread by staff

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