Day one of school:balloons and smiles. Day three:a ‘shocking’ email

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Balloons in school colours and a big WELCOME BACK sign greeted kindy and year 1 students as they arrived at Oatley Public School on Monday. The children were nervous,excited and relieved;so were their parents.

After 16 weeks,life was finally returning to normal. But shortly after the final school bell on Wednesday,parents received the email they dreaded;there had been a positive case,and the school would shut for contact tracing and cleaning. Close contacts would have to isolate.

“There was a sense of worry that this might happen,” said one parent,speaking on the condition of anonymity. “It felt kind of inevitable it would. But this week? On day three,week one? That was shocking.” Students in one class were told to isolate for 14 days.

Balloons welcomed students back on Monday,but on Wednesday the school was closed due to COVID-19

Balloons welcomed students back on Monday,but on Wednesday the school was closed due to COVID-19Supplied

Children cannot isolate alone,so at least one parent must isolate with them. After so much build-up to the big day,after what seemed like an eternity of remote learning,more than 20 families at Oatley Public School were right back to square one.

As Sydney schools reopen for the rest of term four,and years 2 to 11 return to classrooms from Monday,shutdowns such as the one experienced at Oatley will happen across the city,potentially causing significant disruption for thousands of families.

The mother of an Oatley Public close contact said the 14-day quarantine period dates from Monday,when the exposure occured. Her other children will not be able to return to school next week. “The concern for me is once we come out,one of them will be exposed,” she said. “I’m living in fear - not of COVID,but of being put in isolation again. It’s super painful.”

During the first half of this year in Britain,a policy of isolating students exposed to COVID-19 at school led to significant disruption to education.

For one week in June,a quarter of a million children in England missed school because of COVID-19 infections,self-isolation or school closures. When classes resumed after the summer holidays,students were no longer required to self-isolate if they were a close contact of a case at school.

One British study suggested self-testing at home was as effective as isolation at controlling the spread of COVID-19 in schools. Self-tests will be available in Australia from November 1,but NSW Health is still considering how they could be used in a school context.

Elsewhere,however,the first week of school went better than expected. On Monday,about 82 per cent of year 1 and kindy kids attended school in Sydney,which was consistent with the return to school after last year’s lockdown. Some parents kept their children home until their siblings return on Monday. Others wanted to wait and see what happened to case numbers.

Like many schools,Ashbury Public welcomed kindy and year 1 students back on Monday with balloons and bubbles. Ninety-nine per cent of students turned up. “There was a festive atmosphere which alleviated nerves,” said principal Ben Heinecke. “It was really fun for the teachers. We’ve been impressed with how the children adjusted.”

There were a few small adjustments required. “The teachers were called mummy certainly a lot more than usual,there were complaints of,‘I’m hungry,’ and a lot more needing to go to the toilet,but the children will get used to school again quickly,” he said.

For the first day,teachers eased the students into work with collaborative play,sport and visual arts. “One little girl said,‘This has been the best day ever,but can we do normal learning tomorrow?’ They really have been so keen to get back into the routine of learning at school,” he said.

“Parents have already told me that,despite how tough it was to balance home learning with their own work schedules,they still have really wonderful memories of learning from home. We really wanted the learning from home period to be a time when families were brought closer together,not torn apart by unnecessary stress.”

The NSW government has said formals and graduations can go ahead for year 12,under strict conditions such as masks,vaccinated visitors and students bringing their own pens to sign yearbooks.

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Jordan Baker is Education Editor of The Sydney Morning Herald

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