Delay the start of term if that’s what it takes to get teachers vaccinated

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As the Greater Sydney lockdown enters its second week there is a fair chance it won’t end any time soon.

The Delta variant of COVID-19 has a reproduction rate of more than five – far higher than that of the virus strain we were battling a year ago. And since infections grow exponentially, that higher reproduction rate translates into dramatically more infections if left unchecked.

Students are due to return to school next week.Credit:Janie Barrett

That is why the Berejiklian government was right to take the measures they have in response to this outbreak—indeed, they arguably ought to have adopted many of them sooner.

But as we approach the end of the school holidays in NSW the next big challenge is what to do about schools. If the lockdown needs to be extended will that mean school closures and a return to remote learning? Right now education officials say that is not on the cards but Chief Health Officer Kerry Chant is not definitive about that.

We now know that the idea circulating early in the pandemic that kids are extremely unlikely to transmit the virus was more wishful thinking than good science. The early evidence supporting that claim relied on a very small sample of households. Recent evidence of transmission among school children in NSW makes clear that—at least with this variant—kids can be a meaningful source of transmission.

Shutting down schools in April 2020 while we established effective contract-tracing and testing was clearly the right call. But that doesn’t mean it was costless. Some kids learn quite effectively from home, some don’t. There is an obvious socioeconomic skew to these costs with better-resourced families able to provide a more effective and more enjoyable home-learning environment.

And school closures are clearly bad for working parents. Their wellbeing and productivity both take a hit from trying to juggle home-schooling, working from home, and household duties during a pandemic.

It is also clear that this has a negative gender skew. Women, on average, end up bearing more of these costs than men. They work harder and experience more stress but earn less. And the global evidence suggests that these effects can persist long after the lockdown is over.

Of course, closing down businesses is also costly, but that is much easier to address with government financial compensation. And whatever you might have read, $1 of financial support from government doesn’t “cost” a dollar. It costs the economic loss from raising that dollar in taxes. Most economists think that’s about 20 cents.

That’s real, and it’s important. But with government interest rates at record lows and debt levels also very low, it is certainly manageable, and something we should see as part and parcel of any lockdown.

The adverse effects of shutting down schools are not so readily remedied – for parents or children. And this is especially true for the impact it has on gender and socio-economic equality.

As a result, school closures should be the last line in any state’s COVID-defence strategy. We should close almost every other indoor venue before we consider closing schools – and even then, we should pause before doing so.

But that also means paying attention to what this means for teachers. Some teachers may be fully vaccinated, but most will not be. Indeed, many will not even have received their first vaccine dose if they are under 50.

As the NSW Education Minister, Sarah Mitchell, said last week, this makes it imperative to start vaccinating all teachers – young and old – as a matter of priority. And that means starting this week, and, if needed, delaying the start of the school term until all NSW school teachers and school staff –or at least those in Greater Sydney – can obtain at least their first AstraZeneca or Pfizer shot.

This will be a massive effort, and involve vaccinating a large number of the 88,000 teachers in NSW, and 123,000 total school staff. And while some number will already have been vaccinated, many will not have been.

It is therefore especially good news that the NSW government is taking steps to increase our vaccine delivery capacity – through more mass vaccination sites, GPs and pharmacies.

Of course, there are limited national supplies of Pfizer at present. More jabs for NSW school teachers means fewer jabs for some other groups. And this inevitably raises hard trade-offs.

We all hope that by the end of the year, when we are told we will get more Pfizer vaccines delivered, this trade-off will not be nearly so stark. But in the meantime, those making the trade-off must keep both young and old Australians, and those who care for them front of mind.

And there’s no time to waste. School starts next week.

Rosalind Dixon is a professor of law and director of the Gilbert + Tobin Centre of Public law, and Richard Holden is a professor of economics at UNSW Sydney.

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