The last two years have seen a flurry of activity in relation to public health laws across Australia. In this article we summarise the recent and upcoming changes that affect schools.
Overview: How Public Health Laws Affect Schools
Each Australian state and territory has public health laws. These laws impose important obligations on schools in relation to:
- students’ immunisation status
- outbreaks of vaccine-preventable diseases.
The laws generally require schools to obtain and retain immunisation information, report on students’ immunisation status, prevent sick or unimmunised children from attending school under certain circumstances, and notify health authorities if there is an outbreak of specified diseases.
In the past few years, the New South Wales and Western Australian versions of these laws have changed. Victoria and South Australia are currently reviewing their laws. Meanwhile, along with changes to the laws that affect schools, there have also been major changes to the public health laws that affect early childhood centres in several jurisdictions, including Queensland. Following the Commonwealth’s “no jab no pay” legislation, several jurisdictions have enacted different models of “no jab no play” legislation. The Commonwealth also expanded the Australian Childhood Immunisation Register, incorporating it into the Australian Immunisation Register, which is designed to capture all vaccinations given to people from birth to death.
Below is a summary of the relevant changes that affect schools.
New South Wales: changes made April 2018
In April 2018, the Public Health Act 2010 (NSW) was amended so that the immunisation requirements that already applied to primary schools would also apply to high schools. According to the NSW Department of Health, this means that in addition to their usual responsibilities, all principals in New South Wales are now required to:
- request an immunisation certificate at enrolment
- record each child’s immunisation status in a register and retain copies of approved immunisation certificates for a period of three years after the child has ceased to attend the school
- provide a copy of a child’s immunisation certificate to another school that the child has transferred to (on request)
- notify the public health unit if an enrolled child has a vaccine preventable disease, or if they reasonably believe that an unimmunised enrolled child has come into contact with someone who has a vaccine preventable disease
- exclude unimmunised children at risk of contracting a disease from attending school on the direction of a public health officer.
Western Australia: changes made January and July 2019
Amendments to the Public Health Regulations 2018 (WA) and the School Education Regulations 2000 (WA) came into effect in January 2019. According to the Western Australian Department of Health, these laws require schools to:
- collect immunisation status information at the time of a child’s enrolment
- report the immunisation status of enrolled children to the Chief Health Officer, when directed to do so
- report a child who has or is reasonably suspected to have contracted a vaccine preventable notifiable infectious disease to the Chief Health Officer, when directed to do so
- not permit a child to attend or participate in an educational programme of the school, if the child has not been immunised against a vaccine preventable notifiable infectious disease, when directed to do so by the Chief Health Officer
- close the whole or part of the school in order to limit or prevent the spread of a vaccine preventable notifiable infectious disease, when directed to do so by the Chief Health Officer.
Further amendments commenced in July, through amendments to the Public Health Act 2016 (WA). These new laws can have a significant effect on some schools because they state that, under certain circumstances, the person in charge of a school must not permit a very young child to enrol.
Specifically, the new laws say that the person in charge of a school must not permit a child to enrol in the school before the child’s compulsory education period unless the child’s immunisation status is up-to-date or one of several specified exemptions applies.
Currently, the compulsory education period in Western Australia commences “from the beginning of the year in which the child reaches the age of 5 years and 6 months.” This means that any schools in Western Australia who are thinking of enrolling children before this period begins must take extra care to ensure that the child’s immunisation status is up-to-date or a valid exemption applies. The penalty for breaching the laws is a fine of $10,000.
Victoria – laws currently under review
Victoria’s Public Health and Wellbeing Regulations 2009 will be replaced later this year. In preparation, the Victorian Department of Health and Human Services is reviewing the laws and proposing changes. Specifically, the Department is proposing to:
- update the list of diseases covered by the Regulations to bring it into line with the latest medical evidence and terminology
- update the “exclusion periods” for certain diseases listed in the Regulations (the exclusion period is the amount of time a child who has the disease must be excluded from school)
- introduce a penalty of about $660 for primary schools that fail to exclude children who are infected with certain diseases from school. However, the Department says that it expects to impose the fine only in “highly unusual” circumstances where a school has a deliberate intention not to comply with the law
- remove the duty of a person in charge of a primary school to notify the Department about an ill child. At the moment, Victorian primary schools must notify the Department if a child is suffering from certain diseases (including measles and mumps). The Department believes this duty is unnecessary because other people, such as doctors, are already required to notify the Department about these ill children. The Department also hopes that removing the duty will reduce some of the workload on school staff.
The Department plans to finalise its review and commence the new Regulations on 14 December 2019.
What Does this Mean for Schools?
Across Australia there is a trend towards stricter public health regulation of schools. To meet current requirements and prepare for upcoming changes, schools should ensure they have up-to-date, easy-to-use systems in place for monitoring student illness and obtaining and maintaining immunisation information.