COVID-19 cases in schools and childcare are mainly driven by community transmission and off-site learning should be a last resort, a  has found.

The Murdoch Children's Research Institute (MCRI) has prepared a COVID-19 in Victorian Schools Report at the request of the Victorian Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) and Department of Education and Training (DET). The report recommends schools and childcare centres should re-open as soon as community transmission of coronavirus falls and stays low.

Professor Fiona Russell, who led the MCRI analysis team said, "Over the past three months, school and childcare COVID-19 outbreaks were far more likely in those areas that also had high community levels, suggesting community transmission drives COVID-19 spread in schools."

"The single best policy to support school reopening prior to the development of a vaccine or treatment is suppression of COVID-19."

The report analysed DHHS and DET data which included reported COVID-19 cases and outbreaks across all early childhood and primary and secondary educational settings in Victoria from 25 January to 31 August.

Cases associated with schools accounted for eight per cent of all cases in Victoria. From almost one million Victorian school students, 337 students (0.03 per cent) may have acquired COVID-19 via a school outbreak. 

It found 113 known events (involving a single case or more) in childcare with 234 cases potentially acquiring COVID-19 via events linked to childcare.

Of 373 students and 139 staff who were potentially infected through a childcare or school outbreak, four students and four staff were admitted to hospital, all of whom subsequently recovered.

The report's senior co-author MCRI Professor Sharon Goldfeld said, "Childcare and schools play a critical role not only in providing education, but also offer critical support, especially for the most vulnerable of students, which makes them a priority for opening and remaining open."

"Closing schools should be a last resort, especially for childcare and primary school children as cases in this age group are less likely to transmit and be associated with an outbreak." 

Although the report was not able to determine the direction of transmission, the authors anticipate that this data will be gathered in term 4 if any additional outbreaks occur.

The report also provided detailed plans to prevent possible outbreaks following the staged easing of lockdown restrictions which would follow a traffic light system. These plans have drawn on experiences from international settings, designed to reduce day-to-day disruptions as far as possible, while ensuring that teachers, students and the wider community are kept as safe as possible.

Key findings

  • Of one million students enrolled, 337 (0.03 per cent) had an infection linked to a school outbreak
  • 113 known events (involving a single case or more) in childcare with 234 cases potentially acquiring COVID-19 via events linked to childcare.
  • 1,635 infections were linked with childcare and schools in some way, out of a total of 19,901 infections in Victoria. Cases associated with schools accounted for eight per cent of all infections in Victoria 
  • Testing, tracing and isolation within 48 hours of a notification is the most important strategy to prevent an outbreak. In Victoria, the average time between confirmation of the first case in childcare or school and education provider closure was two days. This timely response prevented outbreaks from occurring as 66 per cent of   outbreaks in schools involved just a single infection in a staff member or student and 91 per cent involved fewer than 10 cases
  • Of 139 infected staff and 373 infected students who may have acquired COVID via a childcare or school outbreak, eight (four staff and four students) were admitted to hospital and all recovered 
  • Infections in childcare and schools were rarely linked to infections in the most vulnerable population, the elderly
  • If the first case was a child aged 0-5 years, an outbreak (two or more cases) was very uncommon

Read the full COVID-19 in Victorian Schools Report

pdfCOVID-19 in Victorian Schools Report3.84 MB

The Institute's COVID research briefs, surveillance reports and senate submissions are available at the COVID-19 Response Hub.

Available for interview

Professor Fiona Russell, Lead Investigator, COVID-19 in Victorian Schools report
MCRI Professor Sharon Goldfeld, Investigator and Advisory Committee member, COVID-19 in Victorian Schools report

Media Contact

Murdoch Children's Research Institute
Phone: +61 457 365 848

About MCRI

The Murdoch Children's Research Institute (MCRI) is the largest child health research institute in Australia committed to making discoveries and developing treatments to improve child and adolescent health in Australia and around the world. MCRI pioneers new treatments, trials better vaccines and improves ways of diagnosing and helping sick babies, children and adolescents. MCRI is one of the only research institutes in Australia to offer genetic testing to find answers for families of children with previously undiagnosed conditions.