HUNTER schools should suspend face-to-face lessons to reduce the risk of students spreading COVID-19, according to Laureate Professor Nick Talley AC, who also said the government needed to have strategies for families unable to take time off work.
Professor Talley, the NSW 2018 Scientist of the Year, said the latest modelling from Imperial College London suggested the current approach of mitigation will fail.
"It will reduce death rates and the surge to hospitals but not sufficiently to not lead to an overwhelming of the hospital system in the US and UK... it looks like we'll face similar challenges," Professor Talley said.
"That means we have to have a suppression strategy to actually really control this such that there isn't this surge and the death rate is obviously minimised.
"Are school closures and university closures part of that strategy? It's debatable. I do not deny that there are pros and cons to this and no-one really knows.
"What I'm suggesting is in the situation that's an emergency where you don't have all the data, you're better off overreacting than under-reacting.
"The odds are - from what I can tell - is there is a chance this will make a difference and it will reduce the spread from children to adults and adults and children spreading it elsewhere."
Professor Talley said there could be staged closure if necessary. If schools did shut, he said, it would be recommended children also not go to other crowded places such as shopping centres. They could still play outside.
"I understand the argument 'What about health care workers not being able to go to work' but if we have more cases, way more cases, that's not going to be the deciding factor in what you do," he said.
"Those that can't afford to stay at home in the current model we have, of people working and single parents, we need to have mitigation strategies from the government directly to these people now so they can be supported to do what they need to do and protect themselves and their families."
Professor Talley said he thought Australia would eventually have no choice but to move from mitigation to suppression, which would involve a more "draconian approach" and inconvenience.
"It's going to be very disruptive but it's also going to be effective, if people comply."
NSW Teachers Federation president Angelo Gavrielatos said about 30 per cent of schools had more than 500 students.
He said the design of many and the size of classrooms made keeping a distance of 1.5 metres "impossible".
He said teachers had concerns about a lack of resources to ensure satisfactory levels of cleaning.
"The lack of clarity, consistency and at times conflicting advice and opinions expressed by the medical community and elected leaders is creating considerable stress for teachers and principals."
University of Newcastle Pro Vice Chancellor Learning and Teaching Liz Burd said she was concerned about moving too early or when ill-prepared and causing isolation fatigue.
She said lectures of more than 500 students would be delivered from Monday using Zoom video conference technology, after a Thursday trial.
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