Vulnerable families ‘incredibly nervous’ over back-to-school plan

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Families with immunocompromised members say they have been left at risk by the government’s COVID-19 back-to-school plan, which they have criticised as light on detail and low on options.

Northcote mother Kate Ellis said on Sunday she felt “completely invisible” after the announcement.

Kate Ellis with her partner Peter Long and 13-year-old son Henry.Credit:Chris Hopkins

Ms Ellis has cystic fibrosis. Her oldest son Hugo, 18, is staying with a family friend to decrease the risk of transmitting COVID-19 to his mother during his final high school year, but there is no option to isolate from her younger son Henry, 13, due to the single bathroom in her home.

“Listening to the press conference, my main reaction was that I just couldn’t believe there was no mention of families who have family members with vulnerabilities … I felt completely invisible,” she said. “I feel incredibly nervous. I think that we all know that Omicron is out of this world in terms of its virulence.”

Primary and secondary school students and staff will be asked to complete rapid antigen tests twice a week for the first four weeks of their school year under the state government’s new plan released on Sunday.

Specialist school students and staff will be asked to test five times a week, due to the higher risks for medically vulnerable students. Staff in early learning care and education will be encouraged to test twice a week.

Improved ventilation will be a key measure, particularly in high-risk areas such as staff rooms, music rooms and indoor canteens. Masks will be required for all students from grade 3. Surgical masks including N95s will be supplied.

But Ms Ellis said she would like to see N95 masks mandated for schools, more online learning options and rapid antigen tests provided to families in a similar position to hers, plus clear guidelines on how many air purifiers each campus needs based on square metres covered.

“All the research is saying with the strength of this virus and its ability to be passed on that we need N95 masks, if you want to have any hope of them being effective,” she said.

“The reality is for some people with vulnerabilities, we know that if we get caught in a wave, we will probably be unlikely to be triaged for care.

“If we did need that respirator, we might not get it anyway, so I think we’re all very keen to avoid getting caught up in a wave for that reason. They’re terrible choices we’re having to make.”

Melbourne mother Narelle Spencer said she was concerned by the accuracy of rapid antigen testing, particularly as her immunocompromised son attended a specialist school where some students were not vaccinated.

She said she would not immediately return her son to school, because a COVID-19 diagnosis would be particularly damaging for him after he was admitted to intensive care last year with a different viral infection and needed months to fully recover.

“Testing children with a disability every day can prove challenging, as many children would not tolerate it,” she said. “Would it hurt to wait two weeks, to see what’s happening in schools, before sending our most vulnerable children back? I personally will be waiting two to three weeks to see it’s safe.”

Melbourne father Chris, whose young son attends childcare two days a week, said he believed twice-weekly rapid tests for students should be extended to those under five in childcare.

He said the family had received four notifications of COVID cases at their early learning provider in the past week alone.

“Despite all the good news stories that cases are going down, we see childcare as the same as school, yet they’re not providing any way for us to actually know whether we are a risk to anyone else, or to have an early warning,” he said.

“Childcare is probably the most dangerous situation for our family now. At the end of the day, if it means us paying for RAT tests, we don’t mind that bit, but you can’t even get access to them.

“Providing them to schoolchildren where all school-aged children are now eligible for a vaccine, yet not providing them to preschoolers where none of them are eligible for a vaccine – that seems really odd to me.”

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