Context of COVID-19 and schools

On 22 January 2020, NSW Health advised that they had activated a public health response to prepare for the novel coronavirus that had emerged from Wuhan, China, now COVID-19. Under the Australian Health Management Plan for Pandemic Influenza the AHPPC provides advice on appropriate actions which helped to inform the department’s response throughout the pandemic.

The first recorded case of COVID-19 in Australia was recorded just prior to the commencement of the school year on 25 January 2020. The department was working with the Australian Department of Home Affairs at this time to ensure students who had travelled to affected areas were appropriately advised to self-isolate and not attend school.

On 30 January 2020, the World Health Organisation (WHO) classified COVID-19 as a Public Health Emergency of International Concern. At this point, on 31 January 2020 public advice from the department advised students not to attend school or ECE services until 14 days after their departure from China.

The Australian Government activated the Australian Health Sector Emergency Response Plan for COVID-19 on 27 February 2020, and the first cases of community transmission in Australia were identified on 2 March 2020.

COVID-19 was declared a pandemic on 11 March 2020 by the WHO.

On 15 March, the department ordered that, effective immediately, NSW schools introduce social distancing measures to reduce the spread of coronavirus. At this point, it remained the advice of both the AHPPC and NSW Health that school closures were not a necessary response to the pandemic.

However, following the WHO’s announcement, student attendance fell significantly. The usual rate of student absence is approximately 7-8 per cent at that time of year. By Friday 20 March it had increased to 27 per cent.

On 24 March 2020, the NSW Premier encouraged parents to keep their children at home where possible, noting that schools would remain open and no child would be turned away.

Until 25 May students engaged in a ‘single unit of work’ whether they were at home or school, with rapid deployment of online materials and other adaptions to learning.

During the school holidays, a ‘managed return to school’ plan was announced, with students set to return to school for at least one day a week from Week 3 Term 2 (11 May 2020). Due to reduced community transmission, the success of this return and the capacity of schools to meet AHPPC guidelines, the full-time return to face-to-face learning was announced on 19 May 2020 to commence from 25 May 2020.

Department of Education Response

The department’s approach to COVID-19 has focused on three key objectives which are explored through this report:

  • continuity of quality education
  • every student is known, valued and cared for
  • keeping schools safe and clean

The common focus on these key objectives helped to facilitate the effective response to COVID-19 for our Education System. The approach focused on these objectives over the key stages of the NSW Human Influenza Pandemic Plan (the Pandemic Plan): prevention, preparedness, response and recovery. This report will contribute to the continued recovery phase as well as providing learnings which will assist with prevention, preparedness and response for any future emergencies.

It should be noted that COVID-19 is still a global pandemic. There are still Public Health Orders in place, and the department is continuing to work with NSW Health and schools in the response to COVID-19 where needed, and in response to any emerging cases.

This report is not a full implementation review as the response to COVID-19 is ongoing. This initial review is intended to capture key learnings that can be taken from the response to the pandemic to date. This is to ensure that innovations and opportunities for improvement developed through the remote learning period and subsequent managed return to school are captured in a timely way.

Under the Pandemic Plan, the department is primarily responsible for ensuring continuity of education.

Our key responsibilities under the plan are:

  • working with NSW Health and other government agencies to prevent and slow the spread of the pandemic in NSW public schools
  • supporting the NSW community by reinforcing messages from NSW Health to staff, students and parents/carers
  • continuing to provide educational services
  • preparing for NSW public schools to return to normal through an effective recovery phase
  • providing communication links with the early childhood education sector
  • supporting communication links with the Catholic Schools NSW and the Association of Independent Schools NSW.

The department has in place an Influenza Pandemic Plan that aligns to the National Plan and the NSW Human Influenza Pandemic Plan. The department’s Pandemic Plan sets out the preparation, decision making and response actions required by the department in the event of an influenza pandemic.

The department’s Pandemic Plan was activated in January, and relevant action was taken based on advice from NSW Health. In line with the department’s Pandemic Plan, the department established a Pandemic Working Group to drive the planning process, make strategic recommendations and to support the implementation of actions across the department. To deal with the current situation, the department developed the Response and Action Plan for the Novel Coronavirus. This plan adopts the key principles of the Pandemic Plan but is tailored to COVID-19 and leverages off systems already in place across the department to maintain normal business functions and minimise disruption to operations where possible. Additionally, this supported regular meetings of the department executive to ensure the entire department was informed and able to respond to emerging issues.

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the department had in place comprehensive infection control measures and hygiene practice resources developed in partnership with NSW Health. Government and non-government schools and the ECE sector were supported with advice and guidance, provided through regular communication with principals and school leaders.

Working with NSW Health, the department had also developed protocols to manage and respond to confirmed cases of COVID-19. The department developed response protocols for any confirmed case of COVID-19 in partnership with NSW Health, Catholic Schools NSW (CSNSW), the Association of Independent Schools of NSW (AISNSW) and TAFE to ensure it was ready to respond to any cases that may emerge across the Education System.

The department’s Incident Report and Support Hotline is operational 24/7 for all reportable incidents, general health and safety enquiries, training registration for mandatory and compliance training programs, complex case management services and injury management services.

Preparations were underway early in Term 1 to develop resources to support government schools in the event of short or longer-term closures if necessary. In line with this, many AISNSW and CSNSW also began preparing their schools for possible closures.

In the initial stages of the pandemic specific schools were made non-operational in consultation with NSW Health where a positive case of COVID-19 was identified to have attended the school site. In the context of significant impacts on international school systems from COVID-19 and the first cases of community transmission in NSW in early March, the department formed a central COVID-19 taskforce to provide strategic advice on the continuing response to COVID-19.

A Learning from Home hub was launched in early March in anticipation of a potential move to remote learning. This was to enable the continuity of learning for students. On 24 March 2020, the Premier requested parents and carers to keep their children at home wherever possible.

The department was required to address new needs that arose that were necessary to support the continuity of learning. For example, supporting schools to access digital devices was critical to enabling those students to access learning resources. Additionally, addressing issues in the supply chain for schools in accessing essential hygiene supplies as well as ensuring appropriate levels of cleaning, supported workforce and community confidence in the safety of school sites through the managed return to school.

In its response the department collaborated with the Catholic and independent schools sectors as well as key stakeholders to support a cohesive Education System response. This included sharing resources and procedures. This collaborative approach to responding to COVID-19 was exemplified through the announcement of the return to face-to-face learning which was made with representatives of all three sectors.

While the response to COVID-19 is continuing, the department’s focus has shifted to the recovery phase. Some key elements of this include amendments to the assessment and reporting processes to reflect the disruptions to school-based learning this year, and identifying learnings to support ongoing recovery and preparation for future emergencies. Individual schools may continue to be made non-operational in consultation with NSW Health where a positive case is identified. These processes have now been embedded within business as usual practice, with schools enabled to quickly pivot back to remote learning where necessary.


This initial review is intended to identify some of the key innovations and learning opportunities arising from the department’s response to COVID-19 to date.

This review is focused on the response in schools. The review is not a full implementation review of the department’s response to COVID-19, as the situation is still progressing and NSW and is still operating under a Public Health Order. Additionally, the managed return to school policy and impacts on higher education and early childhood education sectors are out of scope of this review.

The methodology was focused on identifying learnings as close in time to the peak of the response as possible. While we have endeavoured to ensure a significant cross-section of views are able to be represented in this report, the priority is to provide the report in a timely manner, with actionable learnings for the NSW Education System.

The overarching questions for this review are:

  • What worked well in the response to COVID-19?
  • What did we learn through the response (both innovations and gaps)?
  • How can we leverage any of those learning as we move back into the “new normal” of living with COVID-19?

A variety of approaches have been taken to answering these questions for each of the key objectives of the department. Primarily this has been through an internal desktop review encompassing the department’s response and relevant documentation and data held by the department.

In addition, each member of the department’s Executive Leadership Group was invited to provide a submission to the review identifying the ways in which their directorate responded to COVID-19 including any changes that they would like to keep.

A cross-sector advisory panel was formed for the review to ensure that views from the non-government sectors were able to be heard in the report, as well as ensuring a direct voice from principals, teachers and school communities into the review.


  • NSW Teachers Federation
  • Public Service Association NSW
  • Secondary Principals Council
  • Primary Principals Association
  • Association of Independent Schools NSW
  • Catholic Schools NSW
  • Federation of Parents and Citizens Associations of NSW (P&C Federation)
  • NSW Aboriginal Education Consultative Group.

The cross-sector advisory panel were invited to provide a submission to the review on their response to COVID-19, including changes they wished to keep, the interaction with the department’s systems and approach and anything else that could have been done to assist in the response.

In addition to the formal submissions across the department and sector, there was an open call for examples of innovative practice during the remote learning and managed return to school periods. Submissions were open to principals and teachers from both the public and non-government school sectors.

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