But many activities will be missing from students’ usual routines. Whole-of-school gatherings- such as assemblies, performances, speech nights and presentations- won’t be permitted this term. Some schools might choose to run live-streamed assemblies instead, with students participating from their classrooms.
Bands and choirs, sport outside of PDHPE class, community language schools and community events like fetes and grandparents’ days will not be held this term. Nor will excursions, camps or inter-school activities such as sports carnivals or gala days.
For parents, there could be physical distancing requirements at pick-up and drop-off zones. Parents and carers are asked to avoid gathering at school gates and should remain outside the school grounds. If they do enter the school, they should wear masks and check-in using Service NSW QR codes. P&C activities including meetings cannot take place at school; they must continue online.
Will schools be safe from COVID-19?
The NSW Department of Education has taken a layered approach to mitigate COVID-19 risks for student and teacher safety during the pandemic. Part of this approach involves “cohorting”, as explained above: separating students and reducing mingling between groups.
The other key measures are vaccination, mask-wearing, cleaning and ventilation. All adults must be fully vaccinated before coming onto a school site under the staged return, including teachers and school staff. Eligible high school students – those aged 12 and above – are strongly encouraged to have two vaccine doses, although this is not compulsory.
Staff are also required to wear face masks at all times, including when working outdoors and in playgrounds. In high schools, masks must be worn by all students in year 7 upwards, both indoors and outdoors. For primary school students, this is a strong recommendation but is not mandatory. The only exceptions are when students are eating or exercising.
Students and staff are expected to bring their own masks, but schools will have some on hand as a back-up. The department is providing schools with personal protective equipment, including masks and face shields, as well as hygiene packs with gloves, hand sanitiser and surface wipes.
An enhanced daily cleaning regime will continue, targeting high-touch areas such as door handles, lockers, light switches and stairway handrails.
Finally, school teachers have been asked to keep their windows open at all times – before and after lessons, during break times, and in hot and windy weather where tolerable – to improve ventilation in classrooms. Independent modelling commissioned by the department shows the average public school classroom will meet global standards for fresh air changes and indoor carbon dioxide levels if windows are fully open.
In some spaces where natural ventilation is not possible, such as in staff offices or sick bays, there will be a one person per four square metre limit indoors. Automatic fresh air ventilation systems will be installed in smaller learning spaces and the department has also sourced 19,000 air purifiers that schools can use if natural ventilation is not sufficient or in the event of bushfire smoke or poor air quality.
But even with these measures, there will inevitably be COVID-19 cases in school communities as the state learns to live with the virus.
What happens if someone at school gets COVID-19?
The department has indicated it will maintain the same protocols we have seen throughout the pandemic when it comes to school COVID-19 cases and temporary shutdowns.
The education department and NSW Health will assess confirmed case details to determine whether the person has been infectious while at school. If that is the case, close contacts are identified, parents are notified and the school undergoes a thorough clean.
Typically the school site will be made “non-operational” for one or two days as authorities complete these processes, and all families will receive a formal letter from the school about what happens next. When school sites are non-operational, not even principals can attend and all children have to learn at home.
If students are deemed close contacts, parents will be told in writing. Unvaccinated students will have to isolate at home for 14 days, while students who have received two vaccine doses will only need to stay home for seven days. Schools will make remote learning arrangements for students who are isolating.
Adherence to mask rules may influence whether students are considered close or casual contacts, new back-to-school COVID-19 guidelines say. If a student is a casual contact, they will have to show a negative COVID-19 test before returning to school.
Information about temporary school closures and remote learning arrangements will be made available to families through email, Skoolbag, school Facebook pages and the department’s website.