NewsHealth & Safety

COVID in schools in 2024: How should we be prepared?

The most recent wave of COVID-19 was one of the largest since mid-2022. What are the experts predicting for the rest of the school year and how should we prepare?

In a recent article, Professor James Wood wrote: “The current wave of Covid-19 is the largest and fastest in almost two years, and yet there’s little public acknowledgement of its existence.”

Read the latest print edition of School News HERE

Now in its fifth year, the coronavirus pandemic has been overtaken in the media by many more (and some less) pressing matters, yet the risks of COVID-19 have not subsided as much as our public reaction would suggest.

Professor Wood, along with Dr Alexandra Hogan, is an infectious disease modeller in the School of Population Health (UNSW). They are the country’s eyes and ears, measuring virus transmission in the population, and using mathematical models to predict the impact of vaccines.

“We’re very much at the tail end of this wave now. Because of the low rate of testing in the population we rely on other surveillance such as how much virus is found in wastewater to get a sense of how large waves are. Based on this, the wave over November-January seemed to be the largest we’ve had since mid-2022,” said Professor Wood.

The risk of COVID in schools

The risk of severe disease in children is low—around 1 in 4,000. However, we questioned whether the proximity of children to one another in school, in addition to their sheer numbers and sometimes less-than-ideal hygiene, puts them at risk of catching—and passing on—a new COVID variant to others.

“That stated estimate of risk of severe disease for children, is for children infected,” explains Professor Wood. “So, assuming a child is infected, their risk of severe disease is low. However, the high level of contact between children, approach to personal hygiene and close proximity in a school setting are factors to consider for any transmissible infection (not just COVID).”

The patterns of COVID in schools generally mirror what happens in the rest of the community. However, Professor Wood explains there is one exception. “We tend to see infections drop in school-aged kids over holiday periods and then rebound a bit when kids go back.”

“COVID rates are currently quite low and I’m not expecting them to rise significantly until after the July school break.” Professor James Wood

How has COVID changed the way we respond to sickness?

While it is widely acknowledged that school attendance is vital for children’s development, the early years of the pandemic have had a lasting impact on the way the community responds to illness.

“I do think that there is already some social change from COVID in terms of both children and adults being more likely to stay home when unwell, and practice better personal hygiene,” said Professor Wood. “Hopefully, that will help reduce the impact of transmissible infections for the entire school community.”

Why is no one talking about vaccines any more?

The international effort that incorporated the manufacture, trialling and then global distribution and administration of COVID-19 vaccines was one of the largest health interventions in history. By early 2024, more than 13 billion doses had been delivered worldwide, although admittedly not equally across all countries.

The incredible pace at which the process took place (vaccines usually take several years to produce) meant that the COVID-19 vaccine was a hot topic of conversation. Yet now vaccination barely rates a mention at all, with potential consequences for some segments of the community.

“Adults in Australia can access a vaccine booster every 12 months (or every 6 months for those over 65 or younger people with conditions that significantly affect their immune response). This is more like the schedule for the influenza vaccine (which can be co-administered with),” explains Professor Wood.

“Given we are now past the excitement of that initial distribution phase, and in routine delivery, it makes sense that COVID-19 vaccination prompts a lot less discussion. However, we are a bit concerned about lower levels of uptake in older people and those with risk factors – for example, only about 30% of people over 65 had a booster dose over the last 6 months.”

Around one-third of Australian teachers are over 50 years of age, while one-quarter are over 60. Children may not be at risk of severe illness from COVID-19 infection, but school staff may be.

“COVID-19 is here to stay and managing the risks is just that – a balancing exercise,” says Professor Wood. “We will continue to see ongoing transmission of COVID, and expect to see seasonal waves due to declining immunity and the emergence of new variants.”

“I would encourage educators to talk to their doctor about risks and to make sure their vaccination is up to date (for both COVID-19 and influenza) to help prevent respiratory disease this winter. Maintaining hand hygiene in the classroom—with simple measures such as disposing of tissues, and washing and sanitising hand—can also help to prevent transmission of lots of viruses (not just COVID).”

Shannon Meyerkort

Shannon Meyerkort is a freelance writer and the author of "Brilliant Minds: 30 Dyslexic Heroes Who Changed our World", now available in all good bookstores.

Related Articles

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Back to top button
SchoolNews - Australia