Should my kids be going to school or not?
All government schools in the ACT will be going pupil-free from Tuesday, March 24, except for students whose parents are working to deliver critical services. Children in vulnerable situations or with special needs, such as those who do not have access to facilities to support online learning, will also be able to attend.
Chief Minister Andrew Barr says no child will be turned away from school.
"ACT public schools will still be able to safely receive and provide learning for the children of parents and carers engaged in essential services [such as health workers] who are unable to care for their children at home, as well as vulnerable children and those with additional needs," he says.
Independent and Catholic schools are adopting similar arrangements. Executive director of the Association of Independent Schools of the ACT, Andrew Wrigley, says member schools are working "very hard" to develop and advance systems for online learning. Mr Wrigley admits there has been confusion, particularly around the use of terms such as pupil-free days, but schools were preparing for remote learning. He says each school is making its own decisions about the presence of children on campus. Parents are also making their own decisions, with attendances down in recent days.
Catholic Education in the Canberra and Goulburn archdiocese says parents can choose to keep their children home. Its 56 schools will, where possible, allow children to attend school until "at least" the end of the term on April 9 and in the second term it plans to offer a program of learning "that can be accessed in school or remotely".
That sounds different to what is happening in NSW. Why is that?
Although it sounds different, the advice of the two governments is essentially the same. The NSW government is not closing its schools, but Premier Gladys Berejiklian has urged parents who can to keep their children at home from Tuesday, March 24. The premier says no child who turned up to school would be turned away but "because nearly 30 per cent of children are already being kept out of school, for practical reasons NSW is encouraging parents to keep children at home".
La Trobe University epidemiologist Associate Professor Hassan Vally says the risk to children from the virus currently seems low and the federal government's concern about the high cost of closing schools, both in terms of its effect on education and the potential to divert many essential workers from their jobs into caring for their children, is understandable.
How long will the schools be closed for?
At this stage it is not clear. The ACT government says its schools will move to "alternative learning models" for Term 2, which is due to start on April 28. What this means is yet to be spelled out. Term 2 for NSW schools commences on April 27.
What about if we live in NSW but our kids go to school in the ACT?
The ACT Chief Minister, Andrew Barr, has called on people to avoid all "non-essential" travel across the territory's borders. Those who are outside the ACT but rely on it for employment, supplies, and health and education services are exempt.
Will it be safe for my kids to have friends around?
Associate Professor Vally says children from different families should not be visiting each other.
"We are really at the point where we are trying to avoid any unnecessary contact with people. We need to act as though other people have the virus," he says.
So what is closed?
From midday Monday, the following venues have been declared closed:
- pubs and registered clubs;
- gyms and indoor sporting venues;
- cinemas, entertainment venues, casinos and night clubs;
- restaurants and cafes will be restricted to takeaway and/or home delivery; and
- religious gatherings and places of worship (except for small weddings and funerals that comply with the four-square-metre social distancing rule).
Is it safe to go to the supermarket?
Queensland University of Technology professor of public health Gerry Fitzgerald says the risk of contracting the virus while briefly in close proximity to others in a store is small, particularly if you practice good hygiene and maintain social distance as much as possible.
If you do inadvertently get close to someone, "don't panic, just try to limit your contact, do your shopping and get out of there as quickly as possible", says Associate Professor Vally.
The gym is shut. Can I go for a walk? Can I exercise with friends?
Going for a walk, jog or other outdoor exercise is what we should be doing, says Associate Professor Vally, though people need to exercise their judgement and avoid coming into close proximity with others. Exercising by yourself or just the other people from your household is safest. If you do exercise with others, make sure to keep your social distance and use hand sanitiser.
My favourite restaurant can now only do takeaway. Is the food safe?
Generally viruses are killed by the process of cooking, and Professor Fitzgerald says cooked takeaway food should be safe to eat. But Garvan Institute of Medical Research head of immunology Professor Stuart Tangye says it depends on what temperature the food is cooked at - places like hospitals use high heat to sterilise equipment.
What about food workers or the delivery drivers handling the container?
There is a risk of contamination on the container if whoever is handling it is infected, Professor Fitzgerald says. Any worker who is symptomatic should be in isolation, but he admits its is possible that a worker infected but without symptoms may be handling your food. The risk is small, but it exists.
Are we likely to be totally locked down at some stage?
It is possible, but not inevitable.
Governments have been ratcheting up the control measures in an attempt to squash the rate at which new cases are appearing. The acceleration in infections shows what has been done so far hasn't worked.
Associate Professor Vally says governments and health experts will be looking keenly for evidence of whether the latest controls are working to slow the virus's spread.
"If they don't make a sufficient difference than they have got to up it a bit more and things get even more restrictive," he says, warning that Italy provides a glimpse of our possible future if we fail to slow the infection.
How long will things be shutdown for?
The honest answer is no-one knows. Wuhan, the city at the centre of the Chinese outbreak, was put into lockdown on January 23 and it took 50 days for the restrictions to begin to ease.
But the unprecedented experiment in infection control may have worked. Since Friday China has recorded no domestic transmissions of COVID-19.
Professor Fitzgerald says a possible scenario is that Australia controls community-based transmission within the next couple of months or so, allowing the return to some form of normality, including the re-opening of schools. In this situation, the focus would return to the borders and quickly identifying and isolating people entering the country with the virus.
What will end this pandemic?
Experience suggests that as pandemics progress the peak of each successive wave of infections declines. But rather than waiting for that to happen, scientists across the world are hunting for treatments and vaccines.
Already more than 100 human clinical trials have been launched to find drugs that tackle the virus or its effects. Early hopes that anti-HIV medicines would work appear to have been dashed and tests on the effectiveness of anti-malarial drugs are so far inconclusive. Laboratory tests of experimental treatment Remdesivir are promising.
- You can also call the Coronavirus Health Information Line on 1800 020 080
- If you have serious symptoms, such as difficulty breathing, call Triple Zero (000)
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