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How Brisbane Independent School prevented outbreaks of COVID-19, despite Omicron wave

How Brisbane Independent School prevented outbreaks of COVID-19, despite Omicron wave

23 May, 2022

A small primary school in Brisbane's west has done what many others have been unable to achieve during COVID-19's Omicron wave in Queensland: remain outbreak-free.

And it's all a result of a group of dads at the Brisbane Independent School in Pullenvale getting together with the principal and using science and engineering knowledge to prevent SARS-CoV-2 — the virus that causes COVID-19 — spreading through classrooms.

George Roff, a Brisbane scientist who specialises in marine ecology, said the working group — including an engineer and a medical specialist — started discussing ways of stemming the spread of COVID-19 through the 71-student school in December, after Queensland's interstate borders reopened.

Using a smoke machine, they studied airflow patterns in the school's five classrooms and administration areas.

Carbon dioxide meters were also used to identify low-ventilation areas or "dead spots".

They then purchased air purifiers — known as high-efficiency particulate absorbing (HEPA) filters — to mitigate the risk from SARS-CoV-2 particles that might be circulating in classrooms and other indoor areas of the school.

Although one teacher and up to two students in most, but not all classes, have had COVID-19 during Queensland's rampant Omicron wave, no in-school transmission has been identified.

"Our goal in creating clean-air classrooms at the school was to minimise this risk of transmission within the community," Dr Roff said.

Lack of guidance on preventing COVID-19 spread a concern for parents

Medical specialist Jay Mueller, who was part of the working group, said he was concerned about the lack of guidance about how to make schools safe from COVID-19 transmission.

"The narrative that's been proposed is, 'You don't need to worry about kids because it's benign in kids', which I don't think is totally true," Dr Mueller said.

"COVID is not as bad in kids as it is in adults, but that doesn't mean it's still good. It has worse outcomes than plenty of other diseases for which we are very, very careful.

"Kids may not get sick and end up in hospital as often but they have to live with the long-term effects of COVID.

"The body of evidence that continues to accrue is that they're going to be less healthy as a result of having had COVID than they would be had they not.

"To me, the idea of having kids have multiple COVID infections was not acceptable."

Dr Mueller is a member of OzSage, an independent scientific advisory panel that came together during the pandemic to provide expertise on ways to reduce virus transmission.

"The big crisis of COVID will be borne in terms of long-term health outcomes and system strain for healthcare," he said.

"If you get COVID, your risk in the 18 months following that COVID infection of having a vascular event — like a stroke or a heart attack — is several times higher than it was before.

"There is no scenario in which it becomes less transmissible.

"The only scenario is that we provide environments where the virus can't transmit and that's using basic principles of public health and physics to make that not possible.

"If you do that, then you can relieve the anxiety and constant worry people have about acquiring the virus and transmitting it to vulnerable loved ones."

Brisbane Independent School principal Lachlyn Bowie said she was grateful for the expertise of the working group in approaching the issue of COVID-19 mitigation scientifically.

"At the end of the day, this is about health and safety," Mrs Bowie said.

"We're trying to protect our students and staff.

"Considering the number of cases that are happening in other schools, where there's a lot of cases in every single classroom, that's certainly not our experience."

Expert impressed by group's innovation

QUT air-quality expert Lidia Morawska said she was impressed by the working group's innovation and methodology.

"It's prevented their children from being infected and demonstrated to the whole of Queensland, and beyond, how important it is," Professor Morawska said.

"Air quality, and what's in the air, is important not only because of infection transmission but because we need clean air in classrooms so our kids' breathe clean air."

Queensland Health data shows that, in the seven days from March 23 to 29, as many as 19,615 school-aged children tested positive for COVID-19.

Independent Education Union Queensland and Northern Territory branch secretary Terry Burke said schools had been under significant pressure this term due to COVID-related staff shortages and student absences.

"There are some schools where a third of the staff have had to be away, as have been a third of students," Mr Burke said.

"Unsurprisingly, a number of schools have brought back masks as a requirement to try to contain the outbreaks."

Mr Burke said a relief teacher shortage had made it difficult to fill gaps in the school workforce.

"We've certainly noticed a lot of relief teachers [who] have decided they no longer wish to do relief teaching and have basically made themselves unavailable — that's made it harder for schools," he said.

"It's perhaps a longer-term issue — that many staff are now questioning whether this is the career for them."

"If it's this tough, they're not too sure that they want to persist with it."

Mr Burke said COVID-19 vaccination rates in school-aged children needed to improve ahead of term two.

Federal Health Department data shows Queensland continues to lag behind other states and territories in relation to COVID-19 vaccination in children.

Just 22.3 per cent of Queensland's five to 11-year-olds have received two doses of a COVID-19 vaccine and 71.64 per cent of 12 to 15-year-olds.