Researchers investigate spread as North Melbourne school outbreak grows

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Another case of COVID-19 was reported at North Melbourne Primary School on Monday, with the Department of Health investigating if the person was infectious when they attended the large state school.

The school has been closed since last Wednesday. Two year 5 students, a prep student and a year 5 teacher have tested positive to the Delta strain of the coronavirus.

North Melbourne Primary School is closed due to an outbreak of COVID-19 affecting students and staff.Credit:Eddie Jim

Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton said the virus had spread between the two grade 5 students, who were in the same classroom, then to their teacher, and among the students’ and teacher’s families.

He said there was a high rate of transmission for this virus within households.

“Without saying that the actual incubation period is different for this virus, we do see that for the infectious cases it’s gone from a family of four, through those kids to another family, then to the entire family, to the teacher … the attack rate within those households is higher. I think we’ve had about three-quarters of those exposed in households in our current cluster become cases,” Professor Sutton said.

Despite concerns about transmission at the North Melbourne school, Prime Minister Scott Morrison on Monday said returning to in-person classes should be a priority for Victoria. “Kids have lost enough time out of school over the last 18 months,” he said.

While more than 200 members of the school community in Melbourne’s inner north have been identified as tier-one contacts who must isolate for 14 days, some have been recruited for a new research project examining how the virus spreads in schools, kindergartens and childcare centres.

Parents and children have in recent days visited the school to give saliva samples. The school of about 900 students is otherwise closed until further notice, even for vulnerable students and children of permitted workers.

The study will also analyse the impact of school closures on children and families via a number of surveys in coming weeks. It is run by the Murdoch Children’s Research Centre, whose senior researchers have called for school closures to be a last resort during outbreaks, operating on a traffic light system rather than a blanket switch to remote learning.

The research, in conjunction with the departments of health and education, could inform a template for how COVID-19 is tracked and managed in schools in future outbreaks.

The institute’s COVID Schools Project principal investigator, Margie Danchin, invited parents and carers to participate last week.



“This research project aims to improve the public health response to coronavirus outbreaks in Victorian schools and early childhood educational settings,” she told them. “The researchers want to find out how coronavirus is spread within a school, kindergarten or childcare centre.

“This will help to inform the public health response and lessen the impact of future outbreaks, improve public health communication and reduce the impacts of school closure on the health and wellbeing of children, families and staff.”

The school reported on Monday that there had been another positive case of COVID-19 in its community, reiterating to families that they must limit their movements.

More than 300 people in the school community have been identified either as tier-one contacts or tier-two contacts, who must isolate until they test negative to the virus. Ninety-eight per cent of tier-one contacts had tested negative by Sunday evening, the Department of Health said.

Principal Sarah Nightingale emailed parents and carers to say the Department of Health is investigating if the person who tested positive attended the school while infectious.

“While the Department of Health conducts its investigation, staff and students are also asked to stay home and to limit their movements until advised otherwise,” she wrote.

She urged families to get tested at the drive-in testing site at the Melbourne Showgrounds.

The Australian Education Union’s federal branch responded by calling for vaccines for teachers and education staff to be prioritised.

“It is proper that vulnerable groups have been prioritised for vaccination,” federal president Correna Haythorpe said. “However, the federal government must now make the timetable for vaccinating education staff clear.”

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