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OPINION: ‘Closing schools isn't only about protecting students.'

On Sunday afternoon, Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced that Australian schools will remain open.

China, Turkey, France, Israel, Greece, Spain, Italy, Japan, Iran, Iraq, North Korea, South Korea, Pakistan, Norway, Switzerland, Germany, Denmark, Belgium and Ireland, are among the countries who have closed all schools and universities to curb the spread of the coronavirus, with many urging people to work from home if possible.

At the time of publication, 156,536 people have tested positive for COVID-19. The death toll currently sits at 5,835. Contrary to the comments you’ve seen popping up on social media in the last few weeks, this is nothing like the flu. It is at least 23 times more deadly.

We will not know for months, perhaps years, the mortality rate of COVID-19. But currently it’s looking like for every 100 people who fall ill, three to four people will die. If, as has been hypothesised by Dr Kerry Chant, New South Wales’ chief health officer, 20 per cent of New South Wales’ population contract COVID-19, then that’s 8,000 people dead. Those estimates are conservative. And that’s also assuming everyone who needs a hospital bed, gets one.

On Friday, the Australian government announced a ban on all non-essential gatherings of over 500 people. These sorts of measures, known as social distancing, have proven to work in places like China and South Korea.

But there’s one kind of social gathering of over 500 people that, apparently, is still permitted.

A school with hundreds or thousands of pupils? Well. You’re still expected to show up.

Over the weekend, Australia’s chief medical officer Brendan Murphy said it’s “too early” to close the nation’s schools. He argued that COVID-19 did not appear to be affecting children as badly, stating, “One of the interesting and positive aspects of this virus is that there have been very few reports of symptomatic infection in children. What we don’t know is whether children are getting infected but just don’t get symptoms…”

Some points made by both Murphy and the Australian government are valid and worth considering.

If schools close, health care workers may have to stay home to look after their children, putting additional strain on the medical system.

The other common argument has been: Aren’t children better off in schools as opposed to interacting with the community in other ways? Say inside shopping centres of movie theatres?

This is a strange argument given the virtually uncontested expert advice to practise social distancing, and to stay at home as much as one possibly can. Those arguing that schools should be closed, think children and adolescents should be inside. Not at the movies.

Critically, Murphy acknowledged that it is most likely that while children are not being infected, they are still ‘spreading it’.

What doesn’t appear to be acknowledged in this debate is the health risk posed to teachers.

Teachers who are over the age of 60. Who are living with immunosuppresion. Who have a chronic illness. And who feel an obligation to continue to work, until they receive the directive not to.

We also know that many students live with their grandparents. Let’s consider that those grandparents are over the age of 80. The chances of the coronavirus being lethal for them, is, conservatively, about one in six.

And then there’s the bus drivers. The rail workers. The people whose job it is to get hundreds of thousands of kids to and from school everyday. What about their health?

While education is unequivocally one of our greatest social priorities, it defies logic to ban gatherings of over 500 people and keep schools open.

Earlier today I spoke to a primary school teacher who shook his head at the futility of practicing social distancing this weekend.

He didn’t go to the gym or to major shopping centres. He cancelled plans with friends. But on Monday, it will be expected that he shows up to school with hundreds of children, some too young to understand basic hygiene, who cumulatively would have been in contact with hundreds if not thousands of people in the last 48 hours.

Is the plan to wait until someone tests positive? And then they shut the school down? Once the coronavirus has gone home on the school uniforms and in the school bags and on the hands of hundreds of school children, as well as their teachers?

The time to shut down schools and universities in Australia has well and truly arrived.

Let’s hope that when the decision is finally made, it isn’t too late.

Feature Image: Getty.