Children must become our next vaccine priority

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In Victoria’s serial lockdowns, schoolchildren have been more disrupted than most. The state’s students have missed more than 120 days of face-to-face teaching since COVID-19 first sent them home to learn. And with the latest Delta outbreak in Victoria still threatening, classrooms are unlikely to come back to life soon.

The overall impact of homeschooling is not always clear. While some students have enjoyed not having the disruption sometimes associated with the classroom, many more are missing the daily experience of learning with their peers. It’s particularly difficult for year 12s, who have spent a sizeable chunk of their two-year VCE experience in lockdown. It’s also hard for smaller children and their parents, for whom the lack of the social aspects of school can be very trying.

Based on NAPLAN results, Victorian students’ literacy and numeracy did not suffer during the pandemic.

This week brought apparently mixed news about the effect all this is having. Despite Victoria’s lockdowns, the state’s primary school students achieved the best NAPLAN results in the country. That is remarkable and a credit to the state’s teachers, and should allay some people’s fears.

On the other hand, NAPLAN tests a narrow range of skills, and the National Children’s Commissioner, Anne Hollonds, said the situation for many children was dire because they had missed out on the foundations of their academic, social and emotional development. “I’m worried that we’ve got potentially a lost generation of kids who have missed out on the essentials, the things that all of us have taken for granted,” she said.

Many parents could no doubt tell of children who have struggled to stay focused on their studies during this time. For all the connectivity of technology, it is easy to tune out when your classroom is virtual and your location is your bedroom or kitchen table.

On Wednesday, Deputy Premier and Education Minister James Merlino said the state’s authorities would be asking the Commonwealth for more vaccine supplies so they could ensure year 12 students were inoculated by the start of their exams. While he would not commit to priority queues for students, state vaccination centres are now open to bookings for anyone aged 16 and over. The Age would encourage all eligible school-aged children to join the queue for a dose.

With most of the elderly vaccinated, younger people are now making up a larger proportion of infections compared with the outbreaks of 2020. The highly infectious Delta variant will, until this pandemic comes to an end, seek out the unvaccinated. That leaves students aged 12 to 16 who are not yet eligible for the vaccine, and those aged five to 12, who are yet to have a vaccine approved, particularly vulnerable.

Pfizer had hoped to have clinical trial results for five to 11-year-olds in September, but that was before US federal regulators asked the vaccine makers to expand the size of the trial groups. Considering that any results will need to be assessed by Australian authorities, it would seem highly unlikely that most primary school-aged children would have access to a vaccine before the end of the year.

In America, children make up about 24 per cent of the nation’s COVID-19 hospital cases. Of Victoria’s 538 active cases, 114 are aged nine and under and 101 are aged between 10 and 19. Victoria has mandated masks for children aged 12 and above, and recommended them for younger children.

The Age believes the vast majority of students are better off at school – it’s crucial to their long-term prospects. It would also benefit parents juggling work with homeschooling. But it must be done safely, with children and teachers widely vaccinated. When Australia reaches its cautious opening benchmark of 80 per cent of the population aged over 16 vaccinated, children will remain the most vulnerable to COVID-19 infection. They must become our next vaccination priority.

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