Covid-19 self-isolation policy must extend to children

It is ironic that, on the very day the Minister of Education reassured parents and whānau that school was a safe place for their children to be, a student in Dunedin tested positive for Covid-19 and the student’s school has been closed for 48 hours.

Today, all known cases of Covid-19 in New Zealand are either from overseas travel or through family/whānau transmission. If the Government is serious about avoiding school closures, then the response is obvious: any child living with someone required to self-isolate must also self-isolate, or at least stay away from school, regardless of whether symptoms are showing. Ideally, any adult or child living closely with someone required to self-isolate should also be required to self-isolate, regardless of whether symptoms are showing, but let’s focus on children for now and how our schools can remain safe during this crisis.

We have an overseas traveller who tested positive and the traveller’s child also tested positive for Covid-19. At best, an entire school community has been inconvenienced for 48 hours, with a smaller number of individuals being tested and required to self-isolate for 14 days. At worst, we have community transmission.

Since the weekend, overseas travellers are required to self-isolate but not necessarily their children. Self-isolating all children living with an overseas traveller is not much more of an inconvenience to that family since there should now be at least one adult at home. At best, one family is inconvenienced for 14 days and nobody gets sick. At worst, at least one person in that family gets sick, but there has been no community transmission.

While the Minister considers his next steps, schools may choose to be front-footed and adopt a cautious approach, asking students who are living with a family member who is self-isolating to stay away from school for the same period. Families and whānau with a member who is self-isolating may also simply choose to adopt this policy.

Many people are calling for all schools should be closed now. It may well come to that, but the impact on the nation would be huge. For now, I would like the Minister to be right when he says that school is a safe place for our children to be. That’s why the self-isolation policy must change, and he has only a small window of time in which to act.

Dr Audrey Tan, Mathmo Consulting
18 March 2020