Pressure is mounting on the ACT government to finalise its plans for the return of unvaccinated primary school students next month, following concerns of potential teacher shortages due to the explosion of Omicron.
Education unions and school associations have urged authorities to provide teachers and students with priority testing as well as clear and consistent isolation requirements and arrangements to deal with sudden staff shortfalls.
It came as the ACT government conceded no child will be fully vaccinated by the beginning of the first term.
The vaccine rollout for children aged five to 11 began on Monday, with health authorities confirming there were nearly 13,000 bookings throughout January at the AIS Arena Mass Vaccination Clinic.
More doses are expected to be distributed through GPs and pharmacies.
But an eight-week interval between the first and second dose will mean many students won't be fully vaccinated until after the middle of March.
A spokesperson for the ACT Education Directorate said schools would continue with safety measures implemented in term four of 2021.
The measures include mandatory vaccination and indoor mask wearing for teachers, along with check-in procedures and increased cleaning of surfaces.
Staggered timetables, improved building ventilation, outdoor learning and cohorting of children and staff will also roll over into the new term.
"The ACT government is currently engaging in discussions with key stakeholders across the health and education sectors, as well as other jurisdictional governments, in relation to planning for students to return to on-campus learning in term one," a spokesperson said.
"The ACT government is also engaging constructively in the current national discussion to ensure that term one around the country begins with certainty in all jurisdictions."
Queensland announced it would delay the start of the school term by a fortnight in order to give people more time to get vaccinated.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison warned other states not to follow Queensland's plans to delay the start of term one.
"As we see the Omicron wave rise, sometimes you do things which just pushes the wave further out. You still get the same outcome," he said.
But education groups are pushing for a consistent and informed plan weeks out from the school start.
Independent Education Union acting secretary Pam Smith said ongoing teacher shortages could be exacerbated by the rapid spread of Omicron through school settings.
"There was a teacher shortage even before the current COVID crisis," she said.
"If there are significant numbers of teachers or other school support staff not able to be present at the beginning of the term, or into February, that does raise some significant issues."
Association of Independent Schools of the ACT executive director Andrew Wrigley said principals had said the first term was going to be "challenging and complex" with the arrival of the latest COVID-19 variant.
But he said they were well equipped thanks to nearly two years of experience handling the pandemic.
"They're absolutely rightly concerned, but also rightly judicious about having processes and procedures in place to welcome the kids back on campus," Mr Wrigley said.
The Australian Education Union and the ACT government will meet this week to discuss possible staff shortages in cases where a large amount of teachers test positive or are placed in isolation.
ACT branch secretary Patrick Judge said it was important plans considered the impact on students needing to pivot between on-campus and distance learning due to the pandemic.
"We know that those students who start school at the greatest disadvantage will be the most adversely affected by the disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic," he said.
"This needs to be addressed not only through educational programs, but through the provision of social welfare support to those who need it."
But health experts have downplayed the concerns of transmission in schools, pointing to early data showing the variant was "very mild" for most children.
Chief medical officer Paul Kelly said a national cabinet meeting on Thursday would consider the balance between mental and physical health in regards to sending children back to school for term one.
"For the vast majority of children who have Omicron, it is a very, very mild disease," he said.
"It's related to balancing the wider aspects and the importance of face-to-face learning in schools with the risk of COVID."
Australian National University infectious diseases professor Peter Collignon said teachers and children showing symptoms should remain home but there would need to be a change in thinking as isolation definitions and requirements shifted in the coming months.
A middle-ground approach keeping schools open was needed, the professor said.
"We've got to be a little bit more circumspect about closing schools because otherwise we're going to have this as an ongoing continuation for a year or two or more," he said.
"Nobody knows what the right answer is, but we're going to have more variants in the future."
Mr Wrigley said it wasn't the first time independent schools had faced unprecedented challenges, and they were, along with their public counterparts, as prepared as possible.
"Be planned, be prepared and be ready to pivot," he said.
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