Victorian year 11 and 12 students and year 10 students doing VCE subjects will return to classrooms next week despite the state’s chief health officer suggesting student to student transmission among older teens is responsible for a massive cluster at Al-Taqwa College.
The large primary and high school in Melbourne’s west was originally closed on 29 June when a member of the school community tested positive.
As the number of infections linked to the school began to grow, all 2,000 students and 300 staff members were ordered to isolate and be tested last Friday. This cluster quickly ballooned to 90 cases by Tuesday to become the state’s second largest outbreak behind that at Cedar Meats.
While most school clusters involve students being infected by family or teachers, chief health officer Brett Sutton said on Tuesday this cluster involves significant student to student transmission, primarily in the upper year levels.
“The great majority of cases that turned up in [other] schools were from kids who acquired it at home or outside of school and then [were] subsequently identified and the schools closed as a result. Al-Taqwa College is a different example,” he said.
“There seems to have been transmission in the school that was quite substantial. They are older kids. They tend to have more transmission. It’s … akin to adults if they are not doing the physical distancing appropriately, so that’s been a big cluster in terms of schools.”
The cluster was identified when the school had already closed for school holidays, but Sutton conceded there may have been significant transmission in the last weeks of term.
“It is possible. We know kids don’t test as frequently with mild illness, the general population doesn’t test as frequently with mild illness as with severe illness,” he said.
It’s understood the cluster began with a small family cluster in the same suburb of Truganina, first identified on 29 June, and may have been introduced to the school by a student in term 2. There are also links to a family cluster in Sunshine West, but the department hasn’t confirmed in which direction the spread occurred.
In a statement provided to Guardian Australia the college’s principal, Omar Hallak, said that the school had been vigilant towards the virus during term two.
“Before news of these infections, we had taken every precaution to protect our staff and students who live in different areas across Melbourne. We have been vigilant since the outbreak of Covid-19 and put in place safety measures to keep all staff, students and the wider community safe,” he said.
“Temperature checks on a daily basis were conducted for all staff, students and anyone needing to visit the school. Any staff or student that presented with even the mildest cold and flu symptoms were sent back home as a safety precaution.”
He said the school had invested over $100,000 on additional cleaning and hygiene measures since the start of the pandemic.
Despite evidence of student to student transmission among older teenagers, the Victorian premier, Daniel Andrews, said Melbourne VCE students will be the only student cohort to return to school next week.
“Will year 11 and 12 look a little bit different than it might otherwise have in terms of the way schools operate? Yes, I think it will be. I think there will be even more vigilance to make sure students are keeping their distance, that we’re all being as careful as possible,” he said.
“Given the age and the likelihood of complying with those basic rules, that’s a lower risk and it’s a manageable and acceptable risk … I think we all understand that year 11 and 12 are in a unique place. That is really important that we get them back on Monday.”
Professor Marylouise McLaws, an epidemiologist and infectious disease expert at the University of New South Wales, said if VCE students must return to campus, schools should consider making masks mandatory in classrooms.
“Older students physiologically start responding to the disease or the risk of acquiring the disease similarly to adults … In a very poorly air-conditioned room with windows closed because of the cold, it’s very difficult to remove particles that are suspended in the air even for a short time,” she said.
“The addition of a mask or a lightweight face shield might help.”
McLaws said that ensuring young adults physical-distance is difficult given the “mixed messaging” on their ability to spread the virus.
“They are told they don’t get the infection easily, or if they do it’s very mild. They have been left out of the loop of responsibility for distancing and hygiene and all the requirements,” she said.
“To get cranky with them really is not productive. We need to change the rhetoric to remind them that, while the numbers [in their age group] are low, to give this virus any opportunities, such as to close contact with each other at school for many hours, can produce infection, and then that can spread within a family and within their wider connections.”
Students from prep to year 10 within metropolitan Melbourne and Mitchell shire have had school holidays extended by one week. The premier said he has not yet made a decision on if all students will return to school campus after this, or if at-home learning programs will be launched.