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Children, Education and Youth – Covid in Schools

Cassy O'Connor MP  -  Wednesday, 8 June 2022

Tags: Education, Schools, COVID-19

Ms O'CONNOR - I want to talk about the department and your response to the very high transmission rates of COVID-19 within Tasmanian schools. According to the weekly surveillance report of the 22 May more than 50 000 Tasmanian children and young people under the age of 19 have been infected with a novel coronavirus, which has long term consequences. We are requiring teachers to be vaccinated, but we are not requiring primary school students to be masked. The highest way to transmission is amongst children from five to 11. As we know, a significant percentage of them have not even had their first vaccination, it is sitting at about 40 per cent totally unvaccinated. Is it Public Health advice to you, as minister, or to the department, that high infection rates within schools are acceptable?

Mr JAENSCH - Thank you for the question, Ms O'Connor.

Ms O'CONNOR - I do not want you to read out the same thing you read out in parliament the other day when we asked you this question about how safe schools are. I reject the premise of that answer if that is what you are going to say.

CHAIR - Ms O'Connor, the minister has the call.

Mr JAENSCH - What you do with my answer is up to you.

Ms O'CONNOR - More of the same.

CHAIR - Move on please.

Mr JAENSCH - The situation in our government schools at the moment, based on the latest advice that I have, is that our total active COVID-19 cases amongst students currently sits at below one per cent of students. That is a level which is below what I understand they were at the return to school at the beginning of term 2. The trend we are seeing continues to gradually decline of the numbers of cases reported in our schools, obviously not in our schools, but from students at our schools who are staying at home when they have symptoms and test positive. Similarly, for teachers absent with COVID-19, around one per cent of teachers.

What we are confident of, Ms O'Connor, is the advice that we have had from Public Health about how to buffer our schools from -

Ms O'CONNOR - You have not buffered them. 50 000 children and young people have been infected.

CHAIR - Ms O'Connor, if you are not interested in the answer to the question, I will give the call to Mr Wood if you do not stop interjecting.

Ms O'CONNOR - I am totally interested and so are Tasmanian parents.

Mr JAENSCH - From growing infections and spreads in our schools and school communities, the advice and the measures they approved for our schools to use have been effective in managing COVID-19 in our schools. I also, from a very practical sense, see our schools applying those rules in their local context. Every school is different. Every school community, every classroom in some cases is different. We have been able to give our schools, principals and teachers a considerable range of options to deploy to ensure they are keeping kids safe.

The numbers we are seeing are showing those case numbers associated with our schools are low and getting lower as a result.

Ms O'CONNOR - With respect, they are not lowering according to the weekly surveillance report, they continue to increase across all age groups.

Mr JAENSCH - Cumulatively, they have to. That is a good point, but -

Ms O'CONNOR - Before you interrupt me. You did not answer my question about whether or not Public Health has advised you that high infection rates in schools are acceptable. But I want to put some questions we ask on behalf of parents on the record. If you cannot answer them straightaway, I am happy to put them on notice, noting that 49 children and young people have been hospitalised, since 15 December last year with COVID-19. We would like to know how many outbreaks there have been in schools this school year, how many schools have had ventilation audits? Have they been carried out in all schools? Have filters been put into classrooms? What is your plan for masks for primary school students?

Mr JAENSCH - You have a wide range of questions there, Ms O'Connor.

Ms O'CONNOR - Yes, and you should have that information available.

Mr JAENSCH - Yes, and you have asked many things all at once. I will try and work through the bits of them I recall. The public health advice is provided in a national context. As you know, we need to be informed by science, practice and the experience of other jurisdictions through Public Health. That advice has stood us in good stead.

Ms O'CONNOR - No, it has infected 50 000 children.

Mr JAENSCH - It has worked when it has been applied in our school environment.

CHAIR - Ms O'Connor, do not make me give the call to Mr Wood.

Mr JAENSCH - Now, our schools are part of our communities, Ms O'Connor.

Ms O'CONNOR - Don't patronise me. Could you please just give us the data?

Mr JAENSCH - and when you referred to 'have our schools been provided with various lines of defence', including ventilation -

Ms O'CONNOR - We'd like to understand how many.

CHAIR - Ms O'Connor, your constituents would like to know the answer to this, I'm sure.

Ms O'CONNOR - Yes they would.

CHAIR - So if you can please stop interjecting, or I will give the call to Mr Wood, and we will move on without the answers that you seek.

Ms O'CONNOR - With respect, that would be very disrespectful to Tasmanian parents.

CHAIR - Ms O'Connor, you are not an appointed member of this committee. If, to hear the answer to your question, I have to remove you from the committee, I will do so and you can follow the answer on Hansard. Please stop interjecting. Enable the minister to respond. Then we will move on.

Mr JAENSCH - Thank you, Chair. You've indicated that you don't wish for me to read into the record the range of measures undertaken in schools as part of our COVID-safe plans for schools.

Ms O'CONNOR - I just want an answer to the questions.

Mr JAENSCH - What I can reiterate is that at all times, the planning for our schools and the deployment of those plans has been consistent with the public health advice that we've received. The numbers of cases reported through our schools continue to decline.


Mr JAENSCH - The decisions about changing - you're saying no because you're looking at cumulative figures over time which cannot go backwards. You know that, and you're nodding and smiling as I say so.

Ms O'CONNOR - I'm not nodding and smiling.

CHAIR - Minister, if you can please assist the committee by providing an answer in a timely manner.

Mr JAENSCH - What I can indicate is that the number of cases, day on day, week on week, is trending downwards and is currently at levels below what it was at the beginning of term 2, when our children had been away from their schools for a number of weeks.

Ms O'CONNOR - Can I put these other questions on notice because they're data questions.

Mr JAENSCH - In terms of the measures that are in place, including mask wearing in our schools, these matters are frequently reviewed, systematically reviewed by Public Health and advice is updated. You know that we have mask wearing for people over the age of 12 in our school settings, in government schools. You'd be aware that there have been in our community a range of other restrictions -

Ms O'CONNOR - Protections.

Mr JAENSCH - lifted in terms of close contacts, floor space and density in hospitality venues and other things. Decisions about what happens in our schools and changes to any of the restrictions in our schools are made in the context of what's happening in our community.

Ms O'CONNOR - Point of order, Chair. We're running out of time in this output. I haven't been able to get an answer out of the minister on the data points that we've been looking for information on. Before I'm wound up and we go to another question, I would like to ask the minister if I can put those questions on notice.

CHAIR - Thanks, Ms O'Connor. And yes, minister, if we have the data to those questions, can you please provide them? If not, we can take it on notice.

Mr JAENSCH - I'm advised that the data to which Ms O'Connor's questions relates is data held and managed by Public Health, not by Education directly.

Ms O'CONNOR - But doesn't Education have information on ventilation audits in schools? How many filters in schools? How many outbreaks there have been in schools this school year? Surely this is information -

Mr JAENSCH - The outbreak information is managed by Public Health.

Ms O'CONNOR - So DOE has no information on how many ventilation audits have been done? Or how many filters have been put in schools? That is breathtaking if it's true.

Ms O'BYRNE - He's also never seen reports in children's safety about the mould. This is absolutely ludicrous. Seriously, how can you not know?

CHAIR - Ms O'Byrne, please.

Mr JAENSCH - We are able to provide information on the number of air purifiers provided and some of those other measures undertaken by the Department of Education in schools.

Ms O'CONNOR - Ventilation audits?

Mr JAENSCH - Certainly, our schools provide information to Public Health which manages its data regarding outbreaks and other matters. I'm happy for Mr Bullard to make comment on the -

Ms O'CONNOR - You would have this information, and again, we've got more opacity at this table.

CHAIR -Ms O’Connor, the minister is happy for Mr Bullard to provide additional information on the provision of air purifiers and on the matter of ventilation in schools.

Mr BULLARD - The number of air purifiers provided to schools, colleges and child and family learning centres was 4319. We also have additional air purifiers on hand to respond to specific issues that may be identified by sight.

In terms of ventilation, all schools are managing the ventilation of their classrooms and general learning areas, unless they believe that there’s an issue, in which case we provide additional ventilation support which has been developed by an occupational hygienist. This provides resources to schools about how to improve airflow, advice for cooler weather, clear actions for schools to undertake and also guidance on monitoring CO2 levels if they have concern.

If concerns are raised and they believe that they are unable to meet the ventilation requirements within their existing capacity, then additional support can be provided to them through that occupational hygienist, and a ventilation review is undertaken.

Ms O'CONNOR - I thought there was a ventilation audit process before the return to school. That’s what we heard. But now we hear that schools are on their own.

Mr JAENSCH - No, they're not on their own.

Mr BULLARD - Can I just correct the record. The number I gave you for the air purifiers was 4319. That was for term 1. With the second tranche, there are now 9000 in circulation in schools.