The ACT government will seek expert advice on whether it might need to temporarily close schools or keep students indoors if toxic bushfire smoke continues to linger over the territory.
With waves of acrid smoke likely to continue passing through Canberra until fires surrounding the territory are extinguished, the ACT education directorate is scrambling to figure out how best to manage potential air quality issues when students return to class in early February.
An expert has warned that schools face a delicate balancing act of protecting students from potential health hazards, while ensuring children and teenagers remain physically active and mentally stimulated.
Canberrans have choked through at least seven days of hazardous air quality in the past month, as large bushfires burning near Braidwood, along the South Coast and through the Snowy Mountains fan smoke into the capital.
Staff at CIT campuses have also been provided with "relief packages", which include lozenges, eyedrops and P2 masks, to help cope with the smoke.
But three weeks out from the start of term one, the ACT education directorate is still working on a strategy to manage potential problems at its schools.
Asked if the government would consider closing schools on certain days due to toxic bushfire smoke, an education directorate spokesman said it would "consider expert advice and respond accordingly to ensure the safety of students and staff".
The spokesman said it was seeking expert advice on what level of air quality might prompt a school closure.
ACT Health has advised that everyone should avoid exercising outdoors if the average concentration of very small particulate matter (PM2.5) in the air across a 24-hour period is greater than 177.9. That level of concentration is considered hazardous.
"The safety of students and staff is our number one priority and we will be taking all necessary steps to respond to air quality concerns prior to the commencement of term 1," the spokesman said.
Asked if the directorate would provide P2 masks to staff and students to limit smoke inhalation, the spokesman said no decision had been made.
Advice from ACT Chief Health Officer Kerryn Coleman would help inform other "appropriate responses", he said.
Unions and parent groups would be consulted on the measures, while parents and guardians would be kept informed.
Australian Education Union ACT branch secretary Glenn Fowler spoke with the directorate about the issue last week.
"We are satisfied that they are taking a risk management approach to this issue and will put in place adequate controls to minimise any risks that may occur," Mr Fowler said.
The union has helped introduce measures to support staff at CIT campuses, including air quality testing of its buildings.
Cardiologist and physician Arnagretta Hunter said schools should keep students indoors if the air quality reached hazardous levels, in line with the health advice to the general public.
School closures would also have to be considered, she said.
But Dr Hunter, who was "cautiously optimistic" that the worst of the heavy smoke days were over, said schools would need to be conscious of keeping students indoors for prolonged periods.
"We have to balance [keeping students indoors] with the development needs of the child," Dr Hunter said.
"And what's really important around the messaging - and this goes for everyone - is that when there is a clear day and the air quality is good, that you do go outside."