The New South Wales government plans to implement a staggered return for schools across the state from 25 October, and schools in regional NSW could be back earlier, the premier, Gladys Berejiklian, announced on Thursday.
The Higher School Certificate exams will be delayed until 9 November and year 12 students will have greater access to their teachers in the lead-up to the critical exams.
“The NSW government has worked hard to have a safe way to get children back at school and can I take this opportunity to thank parents – to thank the children and the parents – who have been home schooling, and the teachers and the principals and all the school communities,” Berejiklian said.
A staggered return: who goes back when?
Students will return to face-to-face learning with NSW Health-approved Covid-safe settings on school sites in the following order:
Kindergarten and year 1: from 25 October
Year 2, 6 and 11: from 1November
Year 3, 4, 5, 7, 8, 9 and 10: from 8 November
Year 12: students are already able to return in a limited way and this will continue for the remainder of term 3. From 25 October, year 12 students will have full-time access to school campuses and their teachers.
Could schools in regions go back earlier?
Children in any area of NSW to come out of lockdown before 25 October will automatically go back to school with face-to-face learning. The regional lockdown has been extended to midnight on 10 September. There are still significant case numbers in western NSW and the deputy premier, John Barilaro, has indicated that the vast region could remain in lockdown for longer.
What restrictions will operate in schools?
They will need to have a Covid-safe plan, which will include staggered lunch breaks , no assemblies, bands or choirs, and plans to keep schools safe through additional cleaning of facilities.
Will students and teachers need to wear masks?
All staff will be required to wear masks. Mask wearing will also be mandatory in high schools and recommended for primary schools. Mask supplies will be made available to schools.
Will staff need to be vaccinated?
Yes. All teachers and school staff will be required to be fully vaccinated by 8 November. NSW Health will be providing priority vaccinations at Qudos Bank Arena at Olympic Park for school staff on the week beginning on 6 September. Early childcare staff will also be able to participate in the priority vaccinations.
The premier was unable to say what would happen to teachers who were not vaccinated.
She said a survey of public school staff had revealed that almost 80% of the workforce had already received one dose of the vaccine and close to 40% had double doses.
Will students need to be vaccinated to return to school or do the HSC?
No, but the NSW government is “strongly encouraging” parents to get all eligible students vaccinated.
The premier said all students over 16 are eligible for the Pfizer vaccine. Nearly 16,000 year 12 students in the 12 local government areas of concern (out of 22,000) took up Pfizer doses during the special vaccination weeks and appointments remain available at the vaccination hubs.
Atagi has now approved Pfizer vaccines for children aged 12 and up. Additional Pfizer vaccine supplies are expected in mid-September.
“We strongly encourage anybody eligible to get their vaccine and that includes anyone aged 12 and up,” Berejiklian said. She said a school vaccination program was possible but gave no detail.
What’s happening with the HSC?
HSC exams will now begin on 9 November in exam centres.
Supervisors will have to be vaccinated and other measures will be in place to ensure a Covid-safe environment, including social distancing in exam environments.
A revised timetable and guidelines for a Covid-safe HSC is to be released by the NSW Education Standards Authority in early September.
Results are expected to be released on 15 January, but Nesa will confirm the date once it has ensured markers are available.
The education minister, Sarah Mitchell, said the education department had well-developed systems in place for illness and these would apply if students could not attend because of Covid-19.
“Any particular student on the day of their exams who cannot attend because of Covid, or if impacted by being a Covid close contact – there are already procedures in place to help those people in terms of the assessment,” she said.
The Association of Independent Schools of NSW said private schools supported the NSW Health directions to ensure they can operate safely for students and teachers.
“Each independent school will also have its own measures in place to support the wellbeing and education needs of their students and staff,” the chief executive, Dr Geoff Newcombe, said.
“I urge all HSC students to continue to prepare by working as hard as possible on all their subjects. There are many good people working hard to ensure you have the best outcome possible.”
What will happen with university admissions?
The delay of the HSC exams will not disadvantage NSW students when applying to university, Berejiklian said.
“It means the marking period and adjusting of scores would happen until mid-January but the university sector is appreciative of that and can accommodate that.” The premier said she had discussed this with universities but did not provide details.
According to Universities Australia, 35.8% of university places were granted by direct offers in 2020, so the HSC is less important for some students.
“NSW and ACT universities have taken note of the announcement made today by the NSW government,” the NSW Vice Chancellors’ Committee said in a statement.
“We will work through them and adjust our admissions processes (including those through UAC) as needed.’”
The committee’s convener, Prof Barney Glover, said: “Our message to year 12 students remains simple: do your best to complete your HSC, appreciating that there are many pathways into university.”
What if there is a major outbreak in an area?
The premier revealed that if cases exceed 50 per 100,000 people in any LGA, this is the trigger for that area to go back into lockdown. That means schools will close again.
Asked if that meant some schools in hotspot LGAs might not reopen on 25 October, she said: “We need to look at that advice closer to the date, 25 October – eight weeks away.
“We need to take that advice from Health closer to the day, but this is about public messaging around keeping doing the right thing and getting vaccinated and following stay-at-home orders.”
What happens if there is an outbreak in a school?
The school will close. NSW Health will do the relevant contact tracing, ensure those who need to isolate do so and then deep-clean the school before it is reopened, only when it is safe. Students will have to remain at home during this time.
Will school buses be operating?
Unclear. Mitchell said if parents can walk their children to school, this was the safest method of transport. Otherwise, they should consider driving their children. “We will say more about that as we approach 25 October but we have been through this,” she said.