“I had a huge decision to make, whether to submit my children to incarceration versus returning to school,” said one Singapore-based mother, who asked not to be named to avoid identifying her children.
“Throw in lack of flights, expense of travel … it has been a very stressful and uncertain time.”
All minors are staying in Special Health Accommodation – quarantine hotels run by NSW Health staff instead of police.
A NSW Health spokesman said Australia has introduced some of the most effective pandemic quarantine measures in the world.
Given more than half of cases in NSW were overseas acquired, hotel quarantine was a “difficult but necessary safety measure” he said.
He said there were “extensive paediatric supports” for children entering quarantine unescorted, and they were placed close to the nurses’ station to allow for frequent observation.
“No minor is left alone,” the spokesman said. “Allied health and nursing staff will monitor their wellbeing and provide them with activities.”
Danielle Pringle, who runs a business helping with the logistics of returning boarders and international students, said she knew of dozens of high school children who were undergoing hotel quarantine while their parents were thousands of kilometres away.
“I don’t think the government’s actually understanding the impact it’s actually having on these children,” she told the Herald.
The mother in Singapore said she had spoken to her 12-year-old son on Tuesday, who after four days in hotel quarantine said he wasn’t sure how he would cope mentally for the two-week duration.
The Australian Boarding Schools Association has floated the idea of a quarantine bubble for the students, similar to those run by the AFL and at the Howard Springs mining camp in the Northern Territory.
Chief executive Richard Stokes said students would be put up in the national quarantine hub under strict supervision by boarding school staff.
“It’s about doing it correctly, with really good protocols,” he said, adding the plan was for kids to spend three days in their rooms and return a negative test before they could go outdoors in small groups.
The plan has received conditional federal government support but the association is still awaiting a response from state governments, including NSW, Mr Stokes said.
He said it had been challenging for boarding schools to make arrangements for students who could not return home due to border closures.
“Most of our heads of boarding have not had a holiday since Christmas,” he said. “We have had a number of schools stay open all the way through the holidays to look after students or arranging home stays.”
The NSW Health spokesperson said hotel quarantine exemptions could still be granted in special circumstances, including for medical or compassionate reasons, provided a stringent list of health measures were agreed upon for the journey and home.
The Herald has seen three letters from NSW Health rejecting applications for exemptions for international boarding school students.
The mother in Singapore said her sons, aged 12 and 15, were undergoing two weeks of quarantine at a hotel in Mascot despite her submitting a detailed self-isolation plan in which they would stay with her mother.
One of the boys has asthma and celiac’s disease.
“You’re incarcerating children and there are viable alternatives that seem to be available to rich people,” the mother said.
She said the boys were being constantly checked on, there was a nurse on their floor and NSW Health staff had been empathetic.
The mother argued it was unrealistic to expect someone other than the parents to volunteer to quarantine with the children.
“Having completed two lots of hotel quarantine myself, it is a lot harder than people think and I would never ask someone to endure this,” she said.
Another mother based in Hong Kong, who is sending her 16 and 14-year-old sons to boarding school in Australia, said she couldn’t expect her sister, who was due to host the boys, to leave her own three children to enter quarantine.
Saint Ignatius’ College Riverview, Dr Paul Hine, said he respected the NSW government’s acumen in managing the pandemic but “sincerely shared” the concerns of families of international students undergoing 14 days quarantine.
“Our pastoral care team is on standby to provide any form of support,” he said. “We have been delivering care packages to students who are in quarantine.”
Ms Pringle said the general public had a view of expats as being elite, but they were quite often permanent residents living on local salaries.
“At the end of the day the people are Australian residents who want to educate their children in Australia,” she said.
The headmistress of St Catherine’s School in Sydney, Dr Julie Townsend, said many of its international boarding students had to sacrifice seeing their overseas-based families during the summer holiday period.
“This is to ensure they can commence their 2021 school year with us,” she said.
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Angus Thompson is an Urban Affairs reporter for The Sydney Morning Herald.
Carrie Fellner is an investigative reporter for The Sydney Morning Herald.