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RATs for pupils in NSW back-to-school plan

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Students and teachers will be given rapid antigen tests (RATs) to slow the spread of COVID-19 when they return to Hunter classrooms next week.

As part of a long awaited back-to-school plan announced on Sunday, two RATs will be handed out to pupils and staff for four weeks across 3000 primary and secondary schools in the state.

Early education and childcare centres will also be included in the scheme.

Schools will not be closed when there is a positive case, with no contact tracing for pupils and staff. 

However, parents and guardians will be notified when infections are identified within child cohorts.

NSW Premier Dominic Perrottet says it’s the right decision for students to return to face-to-face learning amid the Omicron wave.

“I know many parents are anxious but ultimately we know kids do better in the classroom,” he stated.

“Some students in our state have already missed a quarter of their schooling.

“It is what is best for mental health and social outcomes.”

Education Minister Sarah Mitchell said four million RAT kits had already been distributed to school communities and a further two million will be delivered by Tuesday evening, ahead of students returning to classrooms on 1 February.

Schools will contact parents about how and when to pick up the tests.

All students and staff are asked to use a rapid test before their first day back and continue to carry out surveillance tests twice a week for the first four weeks of term one.

If a pupil tests positive, parents are asked to notify their principal and keep their child at home.

Ms Mitchell said she could offer no better assurance than to say she was very comfortable sending her own daughter back to school and hoped other parents would feel the same.  

At the same time, Chief Health Officer Kerry Chant urged parents not to send kids if they have symptoms.

“Even if they have a negative test on the first day, please keep them home and do a repeat test,” she explained.

“Only send them back if there is an alternate diagnosis.”

Air purifiers have been sent to schools and principals provided with specific advice on how to maximise natural ventilation.

“We anticipate we will have about 20,000 air purifiers in schools,” Ms Mitchell said.

Previous settings such as mandatory masks for high school teachers and students will remain as well as a recommendation for them to be worn by pupils in Year 3 and above. 

Visitors to schools will also be limited and COVID-safe protocols enacted for excursions.

Extensive plans are in place to cover staff disruptions including calling up replacements from a pool of 1,000 student and retired teachers as well as hundreds of trained departmental officers and school administrators. 

The NSW Teachers Federation said it would closely monitor the effectiveness of the back-to-school measures announced by the government.

“Omicron has taught us that nowhere is safe,” president Angelo Gavrielatos said.

“That is why we have, and will continue to insist, that the implementation of risk mitigation strategies, such as rapid antigen tests, masks, improved ventilation and cohorting, is as robust as it can be.”

United Nations children’s agency UNICEF backed the return to school, describing it as proportionate and evidence-based.

With the state’s TAFE system also set to resume, some digital courses are expected to start earlier while those involving face-to-face elements may be shifted to the second half of term.

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