Queenwood to remain open for students

17 March 2020

Dear Parents and Guardians

Communications from the School so far have focussed on providing up-to-date information. When there is much to absorb, brevity is key so we have aimed to be concise and factual. The purpose of this message is somewhat different, and it is therefore longer than usual.

The Main Point

If you don’t have the appetite for a longer reflection, watch recent advice from the Department of Education and the Chief Medical Officer. Our response to this advice is as follows:

Queenwood will remain open. This is the unanimous advice of all the Chief Medical Officers in every Australian jurisdiction, state and federal. Over the weekend I was fully briefed on the facts, the public health issues and the risk assessment underpinning this response and I am convinced that this is in the best interests of our students and of the public.

We are continually monitoring new information, expert advice and our own risk assessments. Circumstances will change, so we may also change our response as the situation develops. We are planning for all eventualities and we will keep you informed.

There are also a few brief notices in the bullet points at the end of this message but if you would like a full explanation of why we have taken this decision, please read on.

The Longer View

In my discussions with parents in recent days, it appears that there is a real hunger for information not just about the decisions being made but the rationale for them. I’m going to set out here not just our current decisions but the processes and information which have informed them. In the following discussion, I acknowledge that we are all dealing with emerging data about a new virus of which there is a far from complete or settled understanding.

The Question of School Closure

In recent weeks, as we have all followed the reports and literature on COVID-19, my thinking had been tending towards the necessity for school closures at some point – and probably sooner rather than later. Over time, however, I have been impressed by some of the more nuanced analyses of the data. The issues and the evidence have been thoroughly canvassed amongst the Executive staff, the Council of Governors and with other Heads. After robust discussion and careful reflection, we have concluded that the correct approach at this stage is for the School to remain open.

On Sunday, I participated in a briefing with a number of Heads of independent schools, the Minister for Health, Minister for Education, Chief Medical Officer for NSW and the Secretaries of the Departments of Health and Education. The briefing presented the data relating to NSW in particular and their advice confirmed the view we had already formed. That view – that the safety of our girls and the health of the public are best protected at this stage by schools remaining open – is the unanimous advice of the Chief Medical Officers and senior epidemiologists of every jurisdiction, state and federal, in Australia. While we must each bring an independent mind to the question, I take that advice very seriously.

Let me walk you through the rationale behind this approach.

Our primary concern is to care for the students, staff and community of Queenwood, and to meet our moral and civic obligation to protect the vulnerable and do all we can to support those caring for them.

The Safety of our Students

I begin with the question of what is in the interests of our students.

As most people are now aware, young people are faring well with COVID-19. Whereas children are generally more susceptible to serious complications arising from the flu, they appear to be far less susceptible to COVID-19. The data emerging out of China, Hong Kong and other countries shows an interesting pattern. It suggests that schools are not significant sources of transmission while, in contrast, household clusters of infection have been very common.

Overall, the data so far seems to suggest that children are more likely to be infected by adult family members. On the evidence, then, schools seem to be good places for children to be.

Next, we need to consider our duty to reduce risk to the wider community.

The Safety of the Public

In this regard, there is a difference between simply closing schools versus quarantining students in a full lockdown. If students are confined to their homes and the adults are also locked down with them, it is clear that the possibility of transmission is greatly reduced. This is not the case, however, if the adults are still coming and going – to work, to the shops, to the occasional urgent meeting or important social event. In that case, the adults (who are more susceptible to COVID-19) are just as likely to acquire an infection and transmit it to their children on their return home. Nor will transmission be greatly reduced if the students who are not at school simply go out and about to the shops and the movies (as has happened in previous instances). Nor will it be reduced if the younger students are cared for by babysitters and grandparents who are moving out and about in the community. These carers may even be at more risk than the general public if they are over 60. Closing schools without lockdown may, perversely, simply increase the rate of community transmission.

So what about closing schools and locking everyone down, so neither children nor adults leave the house? This is an option that may yet be called upon in coming months, especially if hospitals are approaching their peak capacity and it is imperative to slow the pipeline of new cases. A full lockdown, however, is not sustainable for extended periods. Such stringent measures can probably be sustained for weeks rather than months.

If a lockdown started now, how long would it be needed? If we are successful in ‘flattening the curve’, the current wave of infections may be expected to last 20-24 weeks, according to the Chief Medical Officer for NSW. That is an estimate – it could be longer. Could a total lockdown extend for six months or more? Unlikely. In that case, we need to be thoughtful about when to implement such a drastic measure. The reprieve it provides is only temporary. Eventually everyone comes out of lockdown and the process starts again where it left off. The argument is, therefore, that it should be deployed as a sharp, short-term measure to reduce pressure on hospitals threatening to reach peak capacity. We need to time the beginning and end of any lockdown to make a difference, rather than just postpone the inevitable.

There are also unintended consequences of closing schools which could seriously reduce the capacity of the healthcare system; for example, it is estimated that a full 30% of the healthcare workforce would have to stay home to care for children if schools close.

In this case, then, half measures could increase the risk to the public while full measures can only be sustained for a short time – and therefore should be deployed when it will make the greatest difference. Is now that time? I do not believe so.

As of yesterday, over 25,500 people in NSW have tested negative. There are 171 confirmed cases in NSW, a large proportion of which were acquired overseas or from close contacts of returning travellers. Community transmission will increase quickly but is still at relatively low levels. Hospitals are running well and there is no shortage of beds for serious cases. In the circumstances we face this week, pre-emptively closing schools will limit our options in the future without providing any clear benefit – either to the students themselves or to the wider public.

What might cause a future closure?

We expect it will be necessary to close the School at some point in coming months. We anticipate that this is most likely to occur in the following circumstances:

  • Confirmed case of COVID-19 amongst staff or students
    We are expecting this to occur at some point and probably more than once. In these circumstances, the School will shut immediately for a day or so to allow for tracing and isolation of close contacts. The School will be cleaned and then re-open – as has been the case in other schools in Sydney recently.

  • Cluster of cases in our area
    The public health advice is that if a cluster of cases emerges in a particular geographical area, schools may be closed in and around that hotspot. This would be for more than a few days.

  • General closure of schools
    As outlined above, this may be applied to all schools across a widespread area to temporarily reduce pressure on hospitals approaching peak capacity. This would likely be for at least several weeks.

As explained last week, for any closure of more than a day or so, we would move to online delivery of the curriculum and our plans are well underway to facilitate this.

International examples

A notable feature of the press coverage in recent days, and many opinion pieces, has been the constant reference to international experience. Comparisons are made with Italy, South Korea, Hong Kong and other places where schools have been shut. It is important to note, however, that there is no one-size-fits-all approach. Early responses have varied dramatically between countries, which makes raw comparisons risky. These countries are also at the end of winter and the flu season, in relation to which children are more susceptible than adults. We need to draw conclusions from their experience carefully, given our different circumstances.

It is worth pointing out, for instance, that Singapore has kept its schools open whilst simultaneously achieving some of the best success in controlling the spread of COVID-19. (It may well close schools at a crucial point in future, just as we might do so.) Similarly, China is now achieving great success but the press coverage rarely refers to the fact that this has been achieved in most areas of the country without the full lockdown imposed in Wuhan and one or two other areas where the initial infection got out of control. Rigorous implementation of the basics of hygiene and social distancing have been effective in most places.

These and other examples show that basic hygiene and physical distancing will work if applied consistently. Whether Australians will rise to this challenge remains to be seen, but there is no simple equation to show that closing schools immediately will ultimately reduce the risk to our girls or the general public.

For these reasons, we have concluded that the School should remain open. This approach must be supported by other measures: careful assessment of our activities and adaptation or cancellation as necessary; consistent implementation of hygiene and physical distancing; and support from parents in ensuring that girls who have any illness remain at home until fully recovered.

We will continue to review changing circumstances and current advice. If they change significantly, we will change our response accordingly. We will continue to communicate regularly with you about our management of these issues.

The What Ifs…

Some parents have asked for our response if they decide to keep their daughters home. We fully respect that decision and whilst we will not be creating individual education plans, work completed at school will be made available to students via CANVAS and other channels. Parents considering this choice will want to consider not just the triggers for staying at home, but also the triggers for returning to school. As noted above, the best estimate of the Chief Medical Officer is that circumstances will not improve on the current status for at least 20-24 weeks, so a student who is kept home now may be out of school for six months or more. Parents will also need to consider the extent to which they can limit the movements of their daughter and the rest of the household, which would be required to give full effect to their daughter’s confinement.

I also acknowledge that some other schools have taken a different approach, moving immediately to deliver all learning online, making school attendance optional or ending the term early. Given the current anxiety amongst the general public, the attraction of such an approach is obvious. For the reasons set out above, however, we believe it is in the interests of our girls and of the general public to continue to attend school. This is supported by the unanimous advice of all Australian governments and public health authorities.

Once again, I confirm that as the situation changes, we will naturally review and adapt our response accordingly.

For parents

Before I finish, a few general notices:

  • Some parents are still underestimating the gravity of the situation and are sending their daughters to school when they are ill, or declining to collect them when requested. Once again, we appreciate the inconvenience but we must insist on your support – for the protection of your daughter, of all our students and of the wider community.
    If all Australians would isolate themselves even in cases of mild illness, we would substantially reduce the risks of this pandemic.

  • We will be communicating to those affected about further changes to our calendar of events and programs of activities. The general principle is to limit mixing of students and adults who would not otherwise come together in the usual daily routine. We will therefore be limiting or finding alternatives to a range of events including parent events such as Parent-Teacher evenings. Details will follow.

  • If you have not already completed the IT checks requested this last weekend, please complete them now.

  • For Junior School, we will send more information in the next few days about how we will deploy and test our systems for off-campus learning.

  • For Senior School:
    - Lessons will finish for Years 7-12 at 12:30pm on Monday, 23 March 2020 to allow teachers time to prepare for off-campus learning. Girls who cannot return home early will be supervised until 3:20pm.
    - Years 7-9 will stay at home and have lessons online on Wednesday, 25 March 2020 as a trial of our systems. Girls who cannot stay home can come to school and complete their lessons online here. Classes as normal for Years 10-12.

  • There is good advice from the World Health Organisation about how to support your family’s mental health as they deal with the impact of COVID-19 here. We have been calm and candid when explaining our actions to the girls and we encourage you to do the same. This communication is focussed on the rationale for keeping Queenwood open. You will receive further communication in the coming days on the measures we are taking for student wellbeing. We warmly welcome any questions that you have and we will ensure that we address these in any future updates; email health@queenwood.nsw.edu.au with your questions. For routine absences, including appointments, please follow the usual procedure and email absence@queenwood.nsw.edu.au.

  • ‚ÄčTo ensure you stay up-to-date as the situation progresses, please regularly consult the COVID-19 Updates page on our website. A record of this and other communications, as well as resources and announcements, will be posted there.

Finally, I am very conscious of my good fortune in leading a school community that is so balanced and sensible on this issue. I have been in constant contact with parents across all ages, and there have been excellent questions, helpful suggestions and calm good sense.

This is a serious challenge for Australia and the world, but one that will be well met by simple human decency. I have urged the girls to avoid gossip and conspiracy theories and they will follow the lead of the adults around them. We are also aware of the well-founded anxiety which will be experienced by many – in concerns for the health of our loved ones, financial pressures arising from the blow to the global economy and fears for the future. If you are experiencing difficulties, please email me confidentially at elizabeth.stone@queenwood.nsw.edu.au so that we can consider how we may be able to assist you as a family.

I ask everyone to make an extra effort in coming months to reach out to each other, even in very small ways; to encourage and support our community; to acknowledge even difficult news with a proportionate response; and to be as practical and positive as possible.

There is no doubt that this will be a memorable period in our girls’ lives. Let’s make sure that their memories include not just the inevitable challenges but also enduring examples of how to meet adversity with honesty, courage and good cheer.

Ms Elizabeth Stone