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Education, Children and Young People – Covid

Cassy O'Connor MP  -  Wednesday, 7 June 2023

Tags: COVID-19

Ms O'CONNOR - I'm interested to understand whether or not the story that Ms Dow just shared with us has anything to do with the high level of transmission of SARS-CoV 2 in schools. Are you able to provide information to the committee about the number of teacher positions that are currently unfilled due to illness, due to COVID 19 preferably?

Mr JAENSCH - You have asked for the number of positions that are unfilled because of illness. Do you mean how many people are off sick at the moment? That will be a figure that changes day to day. We encourage everybody who has any transmissible respiratory symptoms to not be at work.

Ms O'CONNOR - Unless they work in the parliament, where that is not the rule. The rule is don't come in if you have tested positive for COVID 19. Come in if you are sick is the rule here.

I am interested in finding out this data. In broad terms, how many teacher positions are currently unfilled at this stage - not due to illness, just unfilled, and on the same date last year? And how many teachers are on sick leave on average at this date and at this time last year?

Mr JAENSCH - I will confer with the secretary.

Mr BULLARD - You actually want a day rate, sick leave today?

Ms O'CONNOR - Yes. There must be an averaging of the level of sick leave, I would have thought. Is sick leave now higher than it was a year ago and a year before that, for example? It will be, but I am interested in the data.

Mr BULLARD - On this day?

Ms O'CONNOR - A trend.

Ms O'BYRNE - How do you collect it?

Mr BULLARD - It's collected by day, but staff do not have to fill in their form often until they return from leave and then it's retrospectively applied. So, on any given day we can't go in and interrogate the system and say how many people are sick.

Ms O'BYRNE - You could do the previous day. So, 15 May for instance, we picked the date that Mountain Heights had its challenges.

Ms O'CONNOR - Yes, perhaps I could put that on notice. But it would be interesting to know whether there has been a trend of increased sick leave because we note here that teacher resignations are significantly higher than they were in the previous year. I am interested to understand whether there's been a trend of teachers off sick which, primarily, we believe will be the result of COVID 19 transmission within schools.

Ms O'BYRNE - Perhaps there's an individual date and an average.

Mr BULLARD - Can I suggest that maybe if you're looking for trend data, that we could do Term 1 average sick leave by year for the past three years.

Ms O'CONNOR - Thank you, Mr Bullard, you are very helpful.

Mr JAENSCH - Thank you, Mr Bullard, for your help. Also, to help and for the record, Ms O'Connor mentioned that her assumption or expectation or assertion that any positive trend would be associated with COVID 19 cases. I believe that the trend data we may be able to provide would be, again, a global figure for all sick leave because we don't go down into -

Ms O'CONNOR - That's fine, I understand that.

Ms O'BYRNE - Is it worth asking how many are COVID 19 related?

Mr JAENSCH - I'm not sure if the department, as an employer, can put its employees under any obligation to declare the nature of their sick leave. Therefore, it is not going to be data.

Ms O'BYRNE - You have 200 new cases a day, I reckon that’s a heavy underestimation.

Ms O'CONNOR - That's only reported cases.

Mr JAENSCH - We have flu, we have -

Ms O'CONNOR - Don't minimise COVID 19, which is a vascular disease that causes long-term sequelae. Don't minimise it by grouping it in with flu and RSV, please. You are too intelligent for that.

Mr JAENSCH - I don't seek to minimise it, but I do want the record to not characterise the global number we are going to give as a COVID 19 number because you suggested that you thought it would probably be mainly COVID 19.

Ms O'CONNOR - No, but if we get a trend, we will get another understanding. When you go to the Department of Education website for the return to school plan, the COVID Safe School Plan, it says 'page not found'. That's reassuring.

Minister, is it possible also to have data on school absentees due to illness year on year since 1 January 2021?

Mr BULLARD - Student absences for illness, with the category of sick, explain sick, since 2021.

Ms O'CONNOR - Since the start of the school year in 2021, when the kids here were much safer than they are now from COVID-19.

Mr BULLARD - We can look and see whether we have that.

Back on the employee data, whether people were just putting in for sick leave or COVID 19 special leave, I don't think there is integrity in that data because staff are just choosing to code it in as they wish.

Ms O'CONNOR - We can assess whether there's integrity there, Mr Bullard. We just want to see a trend. I will wait for the answer to that and the school absenteeism due to illness.

Mr JAENSCH - You will probably need to sample a longer time frame than just the period in which there was COVID 19.

Ms O'CONNOR - That's why I wanted to go back to 1 January 2021. That is before the border opened and a brain-invading bat virus was let rip on a population. While we wait for that, minister, can you confirm that every school classroom in Tasmania has an air filter and is ventilated?

Mr JAENSCH - With regard to COVID preparations, there is a range of ways in which schools have needed to respond to COVID cautions.

Ms O'CONNOR - That's not my question.

Mr JAENSCH - It's a tricky question, because -

Ms O'CONNOR - It's not a tricky question.

Mr JAENSCH - schools that have the ability to have natural airflow through windows and doors being opened may not require as much in the way of air purification within those classrooms.

Ms O'CONNOR - That's fine.

Mr JAENSCH - For those that can't, they may rely more on air purification devices. Having visited many of our schools, there are a lot of air purifiers in our schools.

Ms O'CONNOR - Great. So there should be.

Mr JAENSCH - They are ubiquitous. Every school is funded for every learning area to have air purifiers. They are deployed in different ways in different schools according to where natural airflow is possible and also regulation of temperature to make sure that they're comfortable learning environments as well.

Ms O'CONNOR - Can I just check on the data that we were trying to gather? Do you want me to put that on notice about teacher absenteeism and student absenteeism? Should I write that down? School safe plan. Everything is fine?

Mr JAENSCH - Mr Bullard can give you some data regarding the numbers away sick for some -

Ms O'CONNOR - For teachers or students?

Mr BULLARD - We'll have to take the teacher numbers on notice because we've asked for term one trend data, but I can give you calendar-year data for students from kindergarten to year 12, and it's the percentage of the total school population. Percentage of all -

Ms O'CONNOR - Statewide.

Mr BULLARD - statewide, where they're away and the reason given is sickness or incapacity.

Ms O'CONNOR - What time frame are we looking at?

Mr BULLARD - I can give you 2019.

Ms O'CONNOR - And then to date?

Mr BULLARD - Yes. Not this year, but to 2022. In 2019, the percentage of the total school population who had an absence due to being sick was 5 per cent; in 2020 it was 6 per cent; in 2021 it was 6.4 per cent; and in 2022 it was 6.8 per cent.

Ms O'CONNOR - You don't have data on any part of this year to date?

Mr BULLARD - Not here, no.

Ms O'CONNOR - Final question on this line of questions, if I may, Madam Chair? Thank you. How many school outbreaks have there been across primary schools, high schools and colleges, noting that as a result of increased transmission at Friends School, for example, they reintroduced masks to keep their children safe? How many outbreaks of SARS-CoV-2 have there been across primary schools, high schools and colleges last year and this year? Do you gather that data anymore or is it all just free range, let it rip?

Mr JAENSCH - I don't accept your characterisation of 'let it rip'.

Ms O'CONNOR - That's what happened.

Mr JAENSCH - The obligations to report and the ability to record numbers of cases of COVID versus other illnesses changed as the Public Health orders have changed in regard to what people's obligations are. However -

Ms O'CONNOR - Parents can't even find out what the school safety plan is because the webpage is down.

Mr JAENSCH - If the webpage is down, I will check. I understand that the website includes a link to the COVID-Safe Schools Plan 2023, which is active. You have a printout -

Ms O'CONNOR - Of the return to school plan page.

Mr JAENSCH - I believe that the COVID-Safe Schools Plan 2023 is live now and that's where you should be looking. Across our system we have protocols regarding responding to COVID. There are a number of tools that have been used in the past under earlier stages of the pandemic and Public Health requirements. I understand that -

Ms O'CONNOR - Transmission remains high; we've got the highest transmission rate in the country.

Mr JAENSCH - all elements of those plans can be ramped up at individual schools -

Ms O'CONNOR - They never are.

Mr JAENSCH - and with Public Health advice and assistance, if there is the situation you mentioned at Friends School, can be enacted in any of our schools where there is a need.

Ms O'CONNOR - What would it take?

Mr JAENSCH - I'm happy for Mr Bullard to speak in more detail about the COVID-safe plan and how schools may escalate or be assisted to escalate their responses in the event of numbers going up.

Ms O'CONNOR - I've read the plan.

Mr JAENSCH - You actually did find it on the website?

Ms O'CONNOR - This is the most recent time I went to 'Back to school - COVID safety plan announced'.

Mr JAENSCH - You should be looking at the Safe Schools Plan 2023, but I'll ask Mr Bullard to speak on that.

Ms O'CONNOR - Briefly, thanks, because others want to ask questions.

Mr BULLARD - Ms O'Connor, I'm sorry you couldn't access that. I have just accessed that on the internet site, so it is there. There is a range of strategies that principals can put in place if they decide that they need to manage COVID or illness more generally on site. We are really strong on not coming to school if you feel unwell -

Ms O'CONNOR - But plenty do, as you know, Mr Bullard.

Mr BULLARD - All we can do is make strong suggestions around the behaviour of parents and students. Public Health provides advice and support to schools when they believe -

Ms O'CONNOR - It's pathetic advice - and unscientific. Sorry, Mr Bullard.

Mr BULLARD - All we can do is be led -

Mr JAENSCH - Don't apologise to Mr Bullard, apologise to the Public Health professionals who -

Ms O'CONNOR - Who have been sidelined by your Government.

Mr JAENSCH - You just said their advice was pathetic.

Ms O'CONNOR - It is.

CHAIR - Order, please, minister and Ms O'Connor. Allow Mr Bullard to continue.

Mr BULLARD - Thank you, Chair. Public Health provides advice when the level of cases in schools exceeds what would be expected in line with the patterns of community transmission and schools can seek that advice and support at any time to help manage COVID on their site.