After two years of protracted disruptions to school learning, many school administrators, parent bodies and government officials are desperate to ensure a lasting return to classroom learning when term one begins.
As recently as Wednesday, deputy premier James Merlino reiterated the Victorian government's commitment to see children returned to the classroom "day one, term one" - an intention also flagged by national cabinet.
"We want to see our kids in front of their teachers, with their classmates, day one, term one this year, it's just so vitally important," he said.
But the unforeseen and unparalleled contagiousness of the Omicron variant - including among children - has hung a question mark over these hopes and assurances, at least in the short-term.
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In Ballarat, school principals - hopeful of a return to the classroom - are concerned a looming staff shortage, caused by soaring rates of community transmission, could force a return to remote learning.
Miners Rest Primary School principal Dale Power, who also sits on the board of the Victorian Principals Association, said it was close to inevitable the spread of Omicron within the community would impact members of staff.
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"Our biggest concern is being able to staff classrooms," Mr Power said. "The replacement pool of [casual relief] teachers is pretty short at the moment, and resources are really stretched across the state."
"When people are [COVID] impacted they are out for a week minimum - so having continuity and quality of instruction for the students will be a challenge for all schools."
Meanwhile, Gail McHardy, president of parent advocate body Parents Victoria, said the aim to return to classroom learning was a worthy goal, notwithstanding the challenge of Omicron.
"Omicron has been such a game-changer," Ms McHardy said. "The important thing for schools and families is to really focus forward, work together and communicate well together."
But Australia's leading health experts have divided over whether a return to classroom learning is not only safe but even feasible, given the almost non-existent access to rapid antigen tests and anticipated shortfall in available teachers.
Those experts who contend schools should re-open have attached weight to the seemingly "mild" nature of Omicron, which they contend poses a minimal risk to children - particularly when set against the observed mental health impact of remote learning.
In an open letter to governments published in the Nine papers on Wednesday, a group of prominent health experts - including epidemiologist Catherine Bennett, leading paediatrician Margie Danchin and mental health advocate Patrick McGorry - said the harm visited on children's mental wellbeing by remote learning ought to make school closures an option of last resort.
"The major health impact of COVID-19 for children and young people has been on their mental health," the letter said. "A delay in returning to in-person learning puts children's mental health at risk...the lifelong impact of [which] is not known."
The 30 plus signatories to the letter argued any postponement of classroom learning would not be a "proportionate response" to Omicron, given - in their view - most children infected with Omicron only suffer mild disease and any outbreaks could be managed with rapid antigen testing.
Epidemiologist Nancy Baxter, head of the school of population and global health at the University of Melbourne, said one problem with that argument - aside from the lack of available rapid antigen tests - was that it overlooked the fast-moving nature of the Omicron variant.
"Most children do get quite mild disease with Omicron, but we know it does send some to hospital," Professor Baxter said.
"When there are thousands and thousands of children [infected with Omicron], that small percentage of children translates into a lot of children in hospital."
These observations find reflection in the unprecedented numbers of paediatric COVID hospitalisations witnessed in other jurisdictions in recent weeks, including the United States and the United Kingdom, where Omicron has supplanted Delta as the dominant strain.
And they also underpin the World Health Organisation's view that descriptions of Omicron as "mild" were at best misleading and, at worst, dangerous.
This week WHO health officials reminded governments Omicron was not necessarily a mild disease in people who were not vaccinated - which, in Australia, will include millions of children aged 11 and under until at least March (the earliest point at which children will be fully vaccinated).
Added to this, Professor Baxter warned classroom learning would likely occasion a wave of superspreading events, with infected children passing the disease onto to their families and the broader community.
"With Omicron circulating in classrooms, we will see a lot of spread [of infection]," she said. "Any person working in the school system will have a very high risk of contracting Omicron."
Not only would this give rise to the teacher shortage foreshadowed by Mr Power, Professor Baxter said it would also have a wider ripple-on effect on the economy and health system, with potentially thousands more people furloughed or, at worst, hospitalised.
It was for these reasons Ozsage - a multidisciplinary body of leading medical and health experts, including Professor Baxter and prominent epidemiologists Raina MacIntyre and Brendan Crabb - said the return to classroom learning should be temporarily delayed.
Ozsage spokesperson James Bolster said sending unprotected children back to school at the peak of the country's worst outbreak of COVID-19 would inevitably exacerbate existing pressures on the health system and every sector of society.
"A major course correction is required to support our health system, businesses, children and the general health and wellbeing of all Australians," he said.
"Additional infection reduction measures must be reinstated, alongside financial supports for individuals and businesses who have already been hit [by this outbreak]."
In the event the Victorian government returned children to classroom learning at the end of January, Professor Baxter said it was important all was done now to maximise the protection of students and staff.
"If we do send students back to school, we must do everything we can to protect them," she said.
"That would mean ensuring they have well-fitting masks, that classrooms are ventilated and doing as much learning outside as possible."
In line with that approach, air purifiers were delivered to Miners Rest Primary School and several other Ballarat schools this week as part of the Victorian government's state-wide rollout of 51,000 air purifiers to government and low-fee Catholic schools.
But it remains to be seen whether all eligible schools will receive the promised air purifiers in time for term one, with staff shortages currently crippling the transport and logistic sectors.
Similar considerations apply with respect to the 44 million rapid antigen tests ordered by the Victorian government, which it said it expected would be delivered by the month's end.
In the meantime, state schools would receive operational guidelines from the education department before school returns, outlining measures on how to manage or reduce classroom transmission and the use of personal protective equipment.
Mr Power said while he was hopeful these steps would avoid a return to remote learning, he doubted it would be the last challenge thrown up by the pandemic.
"We don't know if Omicron will be last variant," he said. "I'm sure something will come up behind it."
"So, we just have to continue to be flexible and keep adjusting."
- WITH MICHELLE SMITH
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