Prime Minister Scott Morrison has announced free childcare for more than one million families, with a funding boost that aims to keep more than 13,000 childcare services across Australia open.
In doing so, the government has backed its earlier recognition of early childhood education and care being an essential service.
Estimates suggest about 650 early childhood education and care services have already closed in Australia due to falling enrolments.
The government plans to pay 50% of the sector’s revenue up to the existing hourly rate cap, based on the enrolment numbers before parents started withdrawing their children because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
It will only do this so long as services remain open and do not charge families for care.
The funding will apply from April 6 based on the number of children who were in care during the fortnight leading into March 2, whether or not they are attending services.
The plan will cost A$1.6 billion over the coming three months.
Today’s announcement is a much needed lifeline for the early education and care sector, which was on the brink of collapse.
By last week, drops in occupancy at childcare centres were estimated to be between 15% and 50%.
Normally, the childcare subsidy is paid directly to early childhood services, which then pass it on to families as a fee reduction. Today’s announcement effectively increases the fee reduction to result in zero fees.
Last month, the government also increased the time families can stay away from childcare without losing their access to subsidies, from 42 days to 62 days. The new plan waives gap fees, so families don’t face costs for keeping children at home.
Previously, families would face fees even when their child was absent from childcare, so services could keep operating. While this made sense in the pre-COVID world, many families discontinued enrolment when they were not sure when their children would return to care.
Federal education minister Dan Tehan said families that discontinued their enrolment since February 17 were encouraged to re-enrol their child:
Re-starting your enrolment will not require you to send your child to child care and it certainly won’t require you to pay a gap fee. Re-starting your enrolment will, however, hold your place for that point in time when things start to normalise, and you are ready to take your child back to their centre.
Finding a place in quality childcare remains a struggle for many Australian families, so support to stay enrolled is a significant benefit.
The funding boost means many centres can stay open and early childhood educators (including the 72% who are part-time or casual workers) will be able to keep working.
JobKeeper payments will be available for those who cannot keep working. This is welcome respect from government for the importance of these workers, who are risking their health to give children continuity of care.
The announcement caused initial confusion about whether free childcare would apply to all families. Education minister Dan Tehan asked that services prioritise vulnerable families and those who can’t care for their children safely at home.
The Prime Minister said “working parents” would be prioritised, not just those working in the most critical jobs.
Tehan later clarified that the support applies to all families who have an existing relationship with a childcare centre.
While families struggling to care for young children while working from home will welcome this announcement, it still leaves uncertainty about how “prioritisation” will occur.
It is also not clear whether the call for prioritisation was expected to limit the number of families using childcare services, to allow educators to implement strategies like extra cleaning and physical distancing to protect children and staff from infection.
Benefits for children’s learning are also largely missing in the political spin. The Prime Minister is right that “children need as much familiarity and continuity as we can help provide”, but early childhood services do more than provide familiar spaces for children.
When it comes to school education, the global focus has remained on keeping children learning, even for those not at school. But research shows learning is even more important in the early years, so governments also need a plan to support educators and families to keep early education going.
Another glitch is that Goodstart Early Learning, Australia’s largest early childhood service provider, is technically ineligible for the government support announced so far. The company’s annual revenue is just above the A$1 billion eligibility limit for access to the new package.
Goodstart itself was born from the last major crisis in Australian childcare, when ABC Learning went bankrupt, placing more than 1,000 services at risk of closure. Goodstart, a not-for-profit social enterprise, was created from a consortium of community organisations and government support, to provide a new model of childcare that prioritised learning over profit.
It would be a cruel twist of fate if the solution to the last childcare crisis was left out of the solution to the current one.
Education minister Dan Tehan has described today’s reforms as “turning off the old system” of childcare funding. When Australia reaches the other side of the crisis, governments will face tough decisions about whether the clunky pre-COVID system – with childcare funding pieced together from a complex mix of government funding and vastly variable fees – should ever be turned back on.
A broken system will crumble to pieces at the first sign of crisis. Australia has seen childcare come close to the brink of collapse twice now in just over a decade. Governments owe it to children and families to never let it happen again.
The government will provide free child care in a move aimed at ensuring parents, especially in essential services, are able to keep working.
More than 945,000 families with 1.3 million children will benefit.
The new arrangement will scrap, after Sunday, the present funding system – including the means test and the activity test – and instead the government will pay half the sector’s revenue up to the existing hourly rate cap.
The plan will cost the government $1.6 billion over three months – compared with $1.3 billion if current revenues and subsidies had continued, based on the existing system and the big reductions in enrolments that have taken place.
The funding will be paid direct to the centres, with the condition they remain open, so parents do not have the disruption of having to seek out another provider. There are some 13,000 childcare and early leaning services. The new arrangements will also extend to after school and school holiday services.
Priorities will be set for access, with the first in line being working parents, vulnerable and disadvantaged children, and parents with existing enrolments.
Centres should “re-engage with those parents who have taken their children out of care, to see whether they can be accommodated as necessary as well,” Education Minister Dan Tehan said.
“But there is a clear priority list that we want centres to take into account, and the most important of those are those essential workers and the vulnerable children.”
Scott Morrison said: “In this ‘new normal’ that we’re living in, it’s no longer about entitlement. It’s about need.
“And we’re calling on all Australians to think about what they need, and to think about the needs of their fellow Australians who may have a greater need when it comes to calling on the many things that are being provided.”
For parents who have removed their children from childcare, centres can waive the gap fee, dating back to March 23.
The payment to centres will start to be made in a week’s time, and will run initially for three months, after which it may be extended.
Morrison and Tehan said in a statement the plan would provide “planning certainty to early childhood education and care services at a time where enrolments and attendance are highly unpredictable”.
Childcare centres can also get assistance under the JobKeeper program announced this week and the cash and loan schemes also available for businesses.
The Australian Childcare Alliance, the peak body for early learning services, welcomed the announcement as “extraordinary”. It said an overnight survey it had done had shown 30% of providers “faced closure this week due to as massive, shock withdrawal of families – either from fear or unemployment – and another 25% were not sure they could ever recover, even once the virus crisis has passed”.
But with the new financial measures , plus the JobKeeper payment and other existing support mechanism the early learning sector should be able to continue to play its essential role, ACA said.
The current medical advice is for schools to remain open and for children to go to school, unless they are unwell. But if your child is staying home from school, you may be wondering how you can support their learning.
Here are some things you can do to help your child learn from home.
Create an area in the house for your child to be able to focus on learning. There are no clear guidelines on what a learning area should look like. In fact schools have found creating learning areas or spaces to be a challenge. This is because every child has individual ways of learning, so what works for one may not work for another.
Home learning has an advantage in that it can cater to the individual child. As long as the student can focus and be safe, there are no limits to where the learning can take place. Feel free to allow children different places to learn, whether lying on the ground or sitting at a table – whatever works best for them.
But try to limit distractions. Turning the TV off and switching off app notifications will help.
If they are not free, it’s worth checking if the school has a shared license or access package you can use. Companies are offering some online programs and services free during the COVID-19 period. Adobe, for instance, is offering school IT administrators free access to its Creative Cloud facilities until May 2020.
You may also need to download teleconferencing facilities such as Zoom or Skype that teachers may use to deliver lessons. These are free, but make sure you are downloading from the official developers, as some other sites may expose your computer to malware.
Make sure your children do not just see this as an extended holiday but as normal school, from home. It’s important to create a structure.
Mainstream schools have a timetabled structure throughout the week, so rather than disrupting your child’s routine, you might wish to follow your child’s school routine.
There is no specific time students should spend studying however, given different students of different ages will complete tasks and grasp concepts at different rates.
The advice is to aim for the time frames provided by the schools, and then be flexible depending on how your child is progressing.
Communication is key. Keep checking in with your children as to how they are progressing, offering help as they feel they need it.
This is how teachers work continually throughout the day with the 20 to 30 children in their classroom.
We all need to process new learning so allow children time to relax between learning periods. But there are no hard and fast rules over how many breaks they should have or how long these should be. Research shows giving children freedom to choose how they learn, and how long for, can increase their motivation.
If your child’s school has moved to online learning, as a supervising adult you will be more a teacher’s aide or facilitator rather than a replacement teacher. It’s likely schools will provide learning materials, although some may not if the school is still open and your child is staying home for other reasons. It’s worth checking with the school, either way.
For each year level schools apply their state mandated curriculum based on the Australian Curriculum to create a year long program of work. Any work sent home by the school will be based on the appropriate age and stage of the curriculum to ensure students maintain their progression.
This is key, in particular, for year 11 and 12 students who must maintain focus on their studies for the end of year exams.
It can be useful to know why schools choose certain types of work for students to do. So you may wish to browse through the state and territory curriculum documents (NSW, VIC, WA, SA, ACT, NT, TAS and QLD)
Key to understanding these sometimes confusing and complex documents is looking for outcomes and indicators – such as this for year 5 English. You can find all of this information in the relevant year level and subject category.
Outcomes are, in simplest form, the goal a child is to achieve at a certain level. Indicators are the suggested ways your child will show their achievements.
States and territories are putting supporting information online for how the parents can be a teacher’s guide and facilitator.
If your child is finding a particular task difficult, be available to make suggestions and answer questions, but try to let them do things themselves as much as possible.
If you don’t know the answer, work with your child to discover a solution. Let your child, where possible, self regulate – that is to take control of their own learning and not rely on you.
You may need to take your child back a step to reinforce a concept before they move onto a new one. An example might be in long division, where reinforcing decimal points, or even subtraction, needs to be revised first.
There are many online support activities for children learning from home. Where possible try to only use those from official education authorities. The NSW home schooling regulator (NESA) has published some links for home schooling families, that anyone can use.
If you are lost in what to do, then encourage your child to read. Model reading, get your children books and discuss them. Developing a love for reading in your children will help them in all learning areas, no matter how long they don’t physically go into school.
In a recent press conference on the COVID-19 situation, Prime Minister Scott Morrison told Australia schools would remain open for the foreseeable future. He said:
The health advice here, supported by all the Premiers, all the Chief Ministers and my Government is that schools should remain open […] I am asking all other parents around the country […] There’s only one reason your kids shouldn’t be going to school and that is if they are unwell.
But many parents are keeping their children home. Some are doing this in an effort to “flatten the curve”, and others may be worried for the health of their child or elderly relatives.
Attendance in schools across Australia has fallen, by as much as 50% in some. Considering parents are going against the directive of governments, are they breaking the law by taking their kids out of school to study at home?
On the face of it, the answer is yes. But it’s not black and white, and the likelihood of criminal proceedings is traditionally very low. Fining parents has always been considered a last resort, and that would seem unlikely to change in a time like now.
But the law is the law, and is there for a specific social purpose – it is never advisable to willingly and persistently ignore it.
School education is governed by state and territory laws that mandate compulsory education. Parents are legally obliged to ensure their child attends school (or other educational options such as homeschooling) every school day, unless the parent has a reasonable excuse.
The maximum fine that can be issued to a parent varies considerably across jurisdictions. If a parent was to face court (normally this would be for persistent non-attendance), the fine in Queensland can be up to A$800, whereas in New South Wales, it could be $2,750.
But again, prosecuting parents will not usually be the first response, and these figures are the maximum a court may impose. Many states either suggest or require warnings, notices, meetings or conferences before a case can be recommended for prosecution.
Most jurisdictions provide for a reasonable excuse to be given, and then often provide a few examples of what this might cover. If a child is actually sick, this would often be listed as an acceptable reason for their absence.
Similarly, six of the jurisdictions (ACT, NSW, NT, Qld, Tas, WA) specifically mention a defence where the child is required to stay home due to a public health direction. The current direction of governments is for healthy children to go to school. But this defence could cover a situation where a family member is confirmed to have COVID-19, or the child has recently returned from overseas, and therefore needs to self-quarantine for 14 days.
South Australia has a new Act which could allow a parent to keep a healthy child at home to prevent the risk of the child catching a disease; however this law has not yet begun to operate.
Without there being any specific and obvious defence for parents, it would come down to whether removing a child from school due to the threat of COVID-19 is considered a “reasonable” excuse.
In a worst-case scenario, it would be a court that would ultimately decide this question. But there are a range of decision-makers involved in school non-attendance cases who precede a court, including school principals.
Parents could apply for an exemption to their obligations in advance of their child’s absence. Decision-makers for exemptions vary between jurisdictions, and sometimes even within a jurisdiction depending on whether the child is at a state or non-state school.
Powers might be vested in the relevant minister (NSW, SA, Tas, Vic, WA), a departmental CEO/director-general or their delegate (ACT, NT, Qld State Schools), or a school principal (Qld non-state schools).
A factor that might make it more reasonable for the child to be exempted could be if there are other household members who fit into high-risk categories (for example, someone who is immuno-compromised). Also relevant might be what provision has been made for the child once the parent removes them – will the child be doing schoolwork, or playing video-games unsupervised all day?
The prime minister said anything we do we would need to do for six months. This situation isn’t likely to resolve itself anytime soon, and it’s uncertain whether government advice will change with regard to schools.
For now, technically, keeping healthy children at home can be considered illegal. But the likelihood of criminal proceedings is low, and a government decision to prosecute parents would, I imagine, be publicly unpalatable.
Editor’s note: This article is based on the coronavirus situation in Australia as of March 19. The situation may change over time.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison has said government schools across Australia will remain open for the foreseeable future as the COVID-19 pandemic spreads. He added that:
as a father, I’m happy for my kids to go to school. There’s only one reason your kids shouldn’t be going to school and that is if they are unwell.
However, many parents are already voluntarily keeping their children home in an effort to “flatten the curve” – or are considering doing so.
We asked five experts to answer the question: schools are staying open but should I voluntarily keep my kids home anyway, if I can?
If your child is home more than usual, their normal sense of routine has been disrupted and you may be wondering how to ensure they don’t go stir crazy.
Here are four ways to keep your kids happy if they’re home for long periods.
Plan a rough daily routine with times for different activities: school work, exercise, chores, creativity or free play, and time on digital devices.
Research also suggests children be involved in negotiating their routines as this helps support their empowerment. Older teenagers, who may be used to managing their affairs, may only require minor prompts to help with their routine.
By creating a rough routine, you allow children to know what to expect. For example, you can show children the times you will be fully available to them and the times you will be working or busy.
Where schoolwork is offered online, and you find yourself in the role of teaching support, a routine also allows children to know when your teacher hat is on and when it comes off again.
Think creatively about the activities children and teenagers can do when confined to the home. Opportunities for exercise might include a mini bootcamp in the backyard, an obstacle course through the house, physically active video games (dance, fitness, boxing), or kid-friendly dance and kids yoga classes on YouTube.
Primary-aged children are likely to love having their parents involved in such activities, and research shows parent support for exercise and role modelling improves teenagers’ exercise participation.
Social distancing measures reduce children’s capacity to socialise with friends. What this means may differ depending on the age of your child.
Deep emotional connections with friends are extremely important for teenagers and many will turn to social media to discuss their feelings. Yet recent research has shown teenagers who go online for emotional support may experience more worry. This may be because the quality of support they find there may be poor, and they may also experience uncertainty about some of the messages they encounter.
You can encourage teenagers to continue using social media to bond with friends and peers, but to take regular breaks and share their bigger worries with parents. If they hear any alarming information about COVID-19 from their friends, it’s important to remind them to verify the information by checking with reputable sources – like the Australian government’s website.
While primary-age children’s friendships may be less emotionally intense than teenagers’, they may still miss the company of their friends during an extended period of isolation. Research with children isolated due to hospitalisation shows digital devices can be effective in providing a sense of connection with peers.
Supervised FaceTime, Zoom or Skype play-dates may also help provide this connection. And children can write letters or draw cards to then photograph and send digitally to friends and family.
Harnessing your child or teenager’s interests is key to engaging them in new activities, especially when Netflix or video games are the alternative.
Talk to your child about a new skill they would like to learn or a place they would like to visit, and investigate real and virtual possibilities for accessing these. There are endless opportunities to learn new skills together through online platforms such as YouTube.
You could teach children games and skills you enjoy (such as cooking, chess, coding or science experiments). Virtual excursions promote interest and learning, and these are offered by many museums and zoos around the world.
Children and teenagers are also strongly motivated by “achievable challenges”. Think creatively about challenges you could take together.
You could build a fort with every Lego block in the house, choose five board games for a family tournament or fix a neglected area of the garden.
Children’s ability to sustain and direct attention increases across time, so it is useful to plan these activities with your own child’s attention skills in mind. By rotating activities regularly, and aiming to complete one or two each day, it becomes easier over time to limit passive TV viewing.
Children and teenagers stuck at home may become bored, experience increased conflict with family, or express stress and frustration in unhelpful ways. When you observe lapses in emotion control (such as temper tantrums), it is important to place these in context.
It can be useful to acknowledge how your child is feeling, and help them develop resilient emotional responses by problem-solving a path forward together.
If you have a baby, you may be worried about them catching the coronavirus, particularly after media reports of an Australian infant diagnosed with it.
However, the coronavirus could affect infants in other ways. For instance, there may be difficulties accessing health care, consumer goods and child care.
Thinking about these possibilities now, and preparing for them, can help you manage what may come.
If the coronavirus becomes widespread, the health system will struggle to cope for a while.
Up to 20% of people who get COVID-19 need treatment in hospital for up to two weeks or more.
Hospitals and general practices may be overwhelmed by others sick with the coronavirus, which may make it difficult to access health care if your baby gets sick for any reason.
Recognising this, the Australian government recently announced special provisions for parents of newborns to be bulk-billed when consulting a doctor or nurse via phone or videocall rather than in person.
There are also things you can do to help keep your baby healthy so they don’t need medical treatment. By protecting them, you also protect the people around them who may be more vulnerable to serious illness from the coronavirus.
The first thing you can do is to practice good hygiene yourself. This includes frequently washing your hands, avoiding close contact with other people as much as you can, coughing or sneezing into your bent elbow or a tissue, and avoiding touching your eyes, nose and mouth.
Because babies put their hands in their mouths no matter what, frequently washing their face and hands and cleaning surfaces and objects they might touch will help protect them from any infection.
It will come as no surprise to most parents that babies who attend daycare are sick more often.
That’s because babies and small children have an immature immune system, are in very close contact with one another, and may end up sharing saliva with one another by mouthing and touching one another and the same toys.
So, if you can, keep your baby away from daycare. However, if you need to use it, when you pick up your baby from daycare, wash their hands and face, change their clothes, then wash your own hands, before scooping them into that big, warm hug.
Routine vaccination is the safest, most effective way to protect babies and children from illness.
So, keep your child’s vaccinations up-to-date to minimise the chance they’ll need medical attention while the health system is dealing with the coronavirus.
Breast milk contains many ingredients to help prevent and fight infection. It is recommended babies be fed only breast milk until they are six months old and continue breastfeeding with other foods into their second year of life.
If your baby is under six months and breastfeeding, offering them only breast milk protects them from a range of infections and reduces their need for medical treatment or hospitalisation.
If your baby is breastfeeding and using formula, consider replacing formula feeds with breastfeeds.
If you have stopped breastfeeding altogether, it is possible to start breastfeeding again if you want to (contact the national Breastfeeding Helpline for assistance).
If you have an older baby or toddler who is still breastfeeding, keeping breastfeeding will help protect them from other illnesses until after the coronavirus pandemic has passed.
It is easy to accidentally introduce germs into bottles while you’re preparing infant formula. So, because medical care may be hard to access, it is worth taking extra care to prevent this.
Be extra careful about preparing bottles. This means always washing your hands thoroughly with soap, washing bottles thoroughly, sterilising them after every use, and making up formula with hot water.
Remember to cool down the bottle in the fridge, give it a gentle shake, and check it’s not too hot before giving it to your baby.
Supply chains may be disrupted if lots of people get ill. And you may not be able to shop if you need to self-isolate at home.
It is recommended you have two to three weeks worth of supplies at home to prepare for this possibility. Consider stocking up on nappies for this length of time, or keeping washable (cloth) nappies on hand.
If you are formula feeding, buy enough infant formula for three weeks but check the expiry dates.
Mothers are more at risk of becoming sick from the coronavirus than their babies.
Wearing a mask when you are with your baby (including during feeding), washing hands before and after contact with your baby, and cleaning and disinfecting surfaces and any feeding equipment will help prevent your baby catching the virus from you.
If you are are hospitalised or separated from your baby, you can express breastmilk for them.
If you or your partner get ill, someone else may need to help care for the baby or other children.
Babies like to share their saliva with their caregivers and they may be infected with the coronavirus but have no symptoms. So they may easily spread the infection to the people looking after them.
Many parents call on grandparents to help with child care. Unfortunately people over 60 are the most likely to get seriously ill or die from the coronavirus.
So, if your standby carers are over 60, now is the time to think about making alternate childcare arrangements.
Talk with grandparents about how they can reduce their risk of infection if they need to look after the baby.
Karleen Gribble, Adjunct Associate Professor, School of Nursing and Midwifery, Western Sydney University and Nina Jane Chad, Post-doctoral Research Associate, Sydney School of Public Health, University of Sydney
As the number of new cases of coronavirus infection continue to rise the impact is now being felt in schools in Australia. At least four closed due to students and a staff member testing positive for the virus. Most international travel by Queensland students is also banned.
It’s therefore important for parents to be there for their children to ease any concerns they may have about the virus and how it could affect them.
One thing to note is the number of reported infection cases in children remains low: of more than 44,000 confirmed cases from China, only 416 (less than 1%) were aged nine years or younger. No deaths were reported in this age group.
Children are either being infected less or exhibit milder symptoms, but they may still play an important role in transmitting the virus.
So here’s some advice for parents to help them and their children stay informed.
The new coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 causes the disease COVID-19, which can be like a common cold but it can also have more serious complications. Signs of infection may include: fever, cough and shortness of breath. More severe cases can involve pneumonia, kidney failure and even death.
The spread of SARS-CoV-2 has not yet been declared a pandemic but the Australian government has said it’s operating on the basis that it has.
One reason people experience anxiety during a pandemic is uncertainty about its impact. Research during the 2009 swine flu (H1N1) pandemic found those people who struggled with uncertainty were more likely to see the pandemic as threatening, and this can lead to increased levels of anxiety.
One way to provide our children with certainty in uncertain times is with facts, for example, telling them the evidence so far shows children are less likely to experience severe symptoms than older adults.
You can also help them gain a sense of control by giving them strategies to help prevent them catching the virus.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) says we should channel our concern into good hygiene.
Encourage your children to wash their hands with soap and water frequently (particularly after going to the toilet, coming from a public place, and before and after eating).
Children should also use a tissue to sneeze into and put the tissue in the bin afterwards.
A quick scan of the news brings up headlines such as “Australia’s coronavirus death rate could proportionally be worse than China’s, expert warns”. This report even includes a graph showing “How likely are you to die from Coronavirus?”
Exposing children to such reports can increase their fear and anxiety.
There is a clear and strong relationship between what children see as threatening information in the media and their level of fear.
So be careful with what news media your children are exposed to. Try to watch, listen or read it with them so you are there for any questions they may have.
When answering such questions, use information from the World Health Organisation and other trustworthy sources to inform yourself.
Filter some of the incorrect information around preventing COVID-19 (eating garlic, having hot baths) and inform your family with the correct information. Don’t be someone who passes on incorrect information to your children or others.
It’s OK to feel worried. Talking about your feelings of stress can help you work through them.
As parents you only have to listen and hear your child’s concerns. You can’t promise things will be safe or certain. But you can assure them that as a family you will work together to manage whatever comes up in the future and that you are there to listen to them.
Research from the 2009 Swine Flu pandemic showed children’s fear of the disease was significantly related to their parents’ fear of the disease.
This effect of parents passing on fear even exists when there is nothing to fear. Research showed if parents get negative information about something that is harmless, they are more likely to pass on those negative beliefs to their children and increase their level of fear.
So even if you feel stressed about COVID-19, you need to make sure you don’t pass on this fear to your children. Show them you are calm. Don’t be a carrier for fear.
It is easy to get swept away with panic about the future and what may happen. But being future-focused only contributes to anxiety.
Help your child to focus on the now and what they are doing today. These things are in their control – work hard at school, train for basketball. Continue their routine and enjoy the moments.
This is not a time to be selfish, but to work together and support one another.
Be kind to others (don’t steal their toilet paper) and encourage your children to be kind to others as well.
Being less self-focused helps to alleviate stress and give life more meaning and purpose.
The new coronavirus SARS-CoV-2, which causes the disease COVID-19, has infected nearly 90,000 people and caused more than 3,000 deaths so far.
Parents are understandably concerned. But it’s important to keep in mind that comparatively few children have tested positive for the virus, and deaths in children are very rare.
Here’s what we know so far about how children are affected.
COVID-19 is caused by a new strain of a family of viruses discovered in the 1960s. Coronaviruses get their name from a distinctive corona or “crown” of sugary proteins surrounding the virus when seen under a powerful microscope.
Coronaviruses circulate in humans, usually causing a mild illness with cough and a runny nose. Coronaviruses are also frequently found in animals with speculation COVID-19 emerged from animals, most likely bats.
Three novel coronaviruses have emerged this century.
In 2002-03, SARS-CoV (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus) emerged in China spreading to North America, South America and Europe. More than 8,000 cases were identified and around 10% of those infected died.
MERS-CoV (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus), emerged from camels in Saudi Arabia in 2012. A large outbreak followed in South Korea in 2015. Nearly 2,500 cases have been reported and 34% of those infected died.
SARS-CoV and MERS-CoV infection in children is less commonly reported than would be expected. For example, 3.4% of cases of MERS coronavirus in Saudi Arabia were in children, where around 15% of the population is under 19 years of age.
A similar pattern was seen in SARS, where the rate of reported infection in children under 14 years of age was much lower than in older age groups.
COVID-19 was first detected in Wuhan, China in December 2019 and has already caused more deaths than SARS-CoV and MERS-CoV combined.
The number of reported COVID-19 cases in children remains low: of more than 44,000 confirmed cases from China, only 416 (less than 1%) were aged nine years or younger. No deaths were reported in this age group.
In Australia, only one child has so far had confirmed COVID-19 infection.
It remains unclear whether the low numbers of child infections recorded is due to:
If large numbers of children are not getting sick, why does it matter?
If children are infected yet have milder symptoms, they may still play a critical role in COVID-19 transmission. Children are mobile, shed large volume of virus, congregate in groups and are at lower risk of severe disease so often maintain their daily activities.
Preventing school-age children getting infected with influenza has been shown to be an effective community prevention strategy. In the absence of a COVID-19 vaccine, school closures may need to be considered when looking at ways to decrease community spread, if children are found to be key transmitters of infection.
Even infants, who are traditionally more susceptible to severe respiratory infections, had relatively mild infections.
Most children with COVID-19 present with respiratory symptoms and/or a cough, which is indistinguishable from other common viruses including influenza and rhinovirus.
But so far, all children with confirmed COVID-19 have had family members or close contacts with confirmed infection.
In the early part of an Australian epidemic, confirming COVID-19 infections will be important to guide our public health response. However if COVID-19 cases continue to climb, this testing approach may change to only test patients who are hospitalised as the only benefit of confirming COVID-19 infection will be to inform treatment and infection control practices in hospitalised patients.
At this stage, it’s unclear if antiviral therapies are useful in the treatment of COVID-19. Many older drugs, such as lopinavir used to treat HIV, have been used to treat some severe cases but need to be formally evaluated. Clinical trials have been registered and some results from Chinese researchers are expected soon.
However, as children have such mild symptoms, it would be hard to justify exposing them to potential side effects of antiviral medication, such as nausea, vomiting and allergic reactions, for little benefit.
COVID-19 is spread by droplets generated when an infected person coughs or sneezes. Infection can be transmitted if a person touches objects or surfaces that an infected person has coughed and sneezed on and then touches their mouth, nose or face.
The best way to avoid COVID-19 infection (and infection with any other respiratory virus) is by washing your hands with soap and water, using a tissue or the crook of your elbow to cover your mouth when you cough or sneeze and by avoiding close contact with others who are unwell.
Masks in the community are only helpful in preventing people who have COVID-19 disease from spreading it to others. There is little evidence supporting the widespread use of surgical masks in healthy people to prevent transmission in public – and it’s almost impossible to get small kids to consistently wear these.
A vaccine for COVID-19 is still some way off. But it’s worthwhile getting your child vaccinated against influenza. This is not only to protect your child against influenza, but also to reduce the chance your child might be considered to have COVID-19, and to minimise other illnesses in the community that would use health resources.
Christopher Blyth, Paediatrician, Infectious Diseases Physician and Clinical Microbiologist, University of Western Australia; Allen Cheng, Professor in Infectious Diseases Epidemiology, Monash University, and Asha Bowen, Head, Skin Health, Telethon Kids Institute