How serious is COVID-19 for children?
While COVID-19 in children is usually less severe than in adults, it can still be serious. The National Centre for Immunisation Research and Surveillance (NCIRS) data between 16 June and 19 August in NSW this year showed that of the 2,864 children aged 0-18 years who were infected with COVID-19, 43 needed to be hospitalised for medical reasons1 — that is, 1.5 per cent of reported cases.
Research data from the Murdoch Children’s Institute, which was drawn from many different international studies (and included data from the original Alpha variant), showed a much lower severity of COVID-19 in children — only 0.2 per cent of children without comorbidities developed severe COVID-19 symptoms. For children with co-morbidities, despite the very large sample size, the risk remains serious — 5.2 per cent of children with comorbidities developed severe COVID-19 symptoms.2
The report states that although COVID-19 is less serious in children than adults, it “can pose risks for young children that demand a proactive, coordinated public health response.”3 Further, it notes that there is emerging evidence that they are 40 per cent more likely to transmit the virus than older children.4
Australia’s current plan is built upon imperfect data models
The Mitchell Institute Report observes that the Doherty Data Modelling, which informed the development of Australia’s four step National Plan agreed in July 2021, does not distinguish between schools and ECEC settings, and that the social contact matrices used to inform the model do not consider the unique settings of ECEC services and their transmission potential, instead assuming that they are the same as schools.5
The problem with the modelling, the authors argue, is that there are important differences, such as higher adult to child ratios in ECEC settings when compared to schools.
The consensus is that mitigation strategies are key to minimising the risk of infection in children.6
Mitigating the risk of transmission
Cocooning — Vaccinating the Adults
Vaccinating the adults around children who are too young to be vaccinated themselves is a key strategy to protect children and minimise community outbreaks of COVID-19.7 It is the reason many jurisdictions in Australia and around the world are mandating that educators must be double-vaccinated against COVID-19 in order to attend work.
Cohorting is where children and educators are kept in the same group, so they are not exposed to a wider range of children and staff and therefore cannot spread the virus too widely. It is being practised in many schools and some ECEC settings already, though for many ECEC settings, where children attend on different days depending on what suits parents’ work, children are mixing with different children every day.8 Cohorting is simply impractical for many services.
Ventilation is an important component of our arsenal to reduce the risk of COVID-19 transmission.
CELA continues to advocate for ECEC services to be supported to ensure their ventilation is adequate to protect both children and educators. Read our article on ventilation here.
In recognition of the importance of ventilation to reduce the risk of transmission, the NSW and Victorian Governments have adopted some measures to support schools and ECEC services to improve ventilation.
The Victorian government has supported a program where air purification devices will be rolled out to all government and low-fee Catholic schools in Victoria and is offering grants of up to $4,500 to around 1,700 not-for-profit kindergarten services to improve ventilation.9
In NSW, an audit of public schools has been conducted and air purifiers are being purchased to be used by schools in the instances where opening windows is not possible (for example where services are operating during times of extreme heat.)10
The report notes that as cases emerge in ECEC settings some staff will need to isolate, putting strain on the existing workforce. The authors suggest a ‘surge’ workforce to step in as needed would be beneficial, but likely not possible in the context of a shortage of qualified staff in our sector. It notes that Australian Government data found staff vacancies in ECEC are currently 50 per cent above pre-pandemic levels.11
Building a stable workforce is one of CELA’s advocacy pillars and we are continuing to advocate this— the pandemic has only served to make the challenges around workforce more acute.
Viability for ECEC services
The report also highlights the vulnerability of the early education and care sector to economic shock. Unlike schools, where funding is based on enrolment, for ECEC settings, it is much more closely tied to attendance, with childcare providers charging on a daily or hourly basis. The implication is that closures of services due to positive cases or staff needing to isolate pose a greater threat to economic viability of ECEC services compared to schools.12
This is certainly the experience of some of our members, many of whom are standalone and community providers that are unable to cross subsidise with another service who has remained open. In the height of the Delta outbreak in Sydney we had regular contact with many members who, during that period, had as few as one child attending. Many services were losing thousands of dollars a week trying to keep staff on and the service open, being deemed as an ‘essential service’.
While the state and Federal government policy response to the viability issues created by the pandemic was incredibly fast compared to the speed of most policy development, it still meant many services had to fly blind and ‘keep on keeping on’ in the hope that government funding would eventually follow. Eventually it did, in the form of Job Keeper from the NSW Government and Business Continuity Payments from the Federal Government. Increasing the number of allowable absences for CCS funded services was also a critically important step to encourage families to stay connected to their child’s ECEC service and hence ensure services still received the gap fee to help manage their ongoing costs.
CELA supports the point made in the report that in the medium- to long-term, Australia needs to rethink how it funds and delivers ECEC services, to ensure that this essential service for children and families is never again under threat.13
It's time for the government to rethink the way ECEC is funded
Schools weren’t always this stable. There was a period in Australia’s history when school teachers did face such existential threats to their livelihoods, and schools’ incomes were similarly precarious — it was in the nineteenth century in a period when parents were often tempted to keep their children at home so they could supplement the family income and save on school fees.
Around this time, schools popped up like mushrooms — mostly as one Christian denominational school opened, another competing denominational school opened in response.
It was a conservative Federal politician who put a stop to it — a man named Robert Lowe, who, suspicious of democracy, in 1844 led a review into schools which eventually led to free compulsory schooling in Australia.
The argument which won the day was around managing the ‘threat’ of democracy to British civilisation (and property). With the increasing pressure for democracy, it was recognised that ‘we must educate our masters’. Alongside this was a growing belief that national strength was linked to economic advance and that associated technical skills could only be supported by reform to school education.
Today, we don’t question the right for children to receive a school education — it is embedded in our culture, and the benefits of it to the individual, the economy and society are accepted by all sides of politics.
The worst of the pandemic highlighted that early education and care, too, is ‘an essential service’. There is a strong body of research demonstrating the impact high quality education and care has on children’s learning and development in the critical first few years of life, not to mention the role it plays in supporting women’s participation in the paid workforce.
We have a conservative government. We just need someone among it to recognise that, just as the conservative Robert Lowe recognised with regard to schools, the benefits of ECEC warrant significant recurrent public funding.
Read the full report
1. De Courten, M., Hurley, P., Broerse, J., Hildebrandt, M., Matthews, H., Pennicuik, S., (2021). COVID-19 and early childhood, education and care. Mitchell Institute, Victoria University, https://www.vu.edu.au/sites/default/files/covid19-and-early-childhood-education-and-care.pdf Page 8
2. Murdoch Children’s Research Institute, 13 September 2021, “Research Brief: COVID-19 and Child and Adolescent Health” Version 1, https://www.mcri.edu.au/sites/default/files/media/documents/covid-19-and-child-and-adolescent-health-140921.pdf Accessed 1 November 2021
3. De Courten, M. et al. page 8
4. De Courten, M. et al. page 6
5. De Courten, M. et al. page 16
6. De Courten, M. et al. page 21
7. De Courten, M. et al. page 22
8. De Courten, M. et al. page 24
9. Victorian School Building Authority, Kinder Ventilation Support Funding, https://www.schoolbuildings.vic.gov.au/Pages/Kinder-Ventilation-Support.aspx Accessed 1 November 2021
10. NSW Department of Education, https://education.nsw.gov.au/covid-19/advice-for-families/ventilation#Providing2 accessed 1 November 2021
11. De Courten, M. et al. page. 24
12. Ibid, page 21
13. Ibid, page 6
14. Ibid, page 27