NSW has passed a significant milestone on its road out of lockdown, with the return of all school students to classrooms for the first time in four months, putting an end to home learning.
Years two to 11 went back to the classroom on Monday, joining kindergarten, year one and year 12 students who returned last week.
The older students are focused on HSC exams that begin in two weeks.
Education Minister Sarah Mitchell says year 12 students, and potentially entire cohorts in local government areas that were marked as areas of concern, will have special considerations to account for the pandemic disruption in their learning.
Ms Mitchell praised school staff, teachers and parents for ensuring “learning continuity”.
“As a parent myself, I know learning from home can be really, really challenging… I think our families did an amazing job,” Ms Mitchell said.
Premier Dominic Perrottet said students had shown “resilience and confidence” that would serve them well in their final exams.
He said confidence was “key to getting our state back on track” and had reached levels “we haven’t seen for some time”.
Mr Perrottet is also “very confident” that investments in the health system have prepared the state for an expected increase in case numbers and hospitalisations as restrictions lift.
Deakin University epidemiologist Catherine Bennett told the ABC despite high case numbers, hospitalisations were much lower than predicted and below what Sydney experienced at the peak of the wave.
“Even though we have more case numbers, we have far fewer hospitalisations so that’s showing how the vaccine works and should give us all confidence,” she said.
“It all comes off the back of fantastic vaccination numbers, and that really does make a difference.”
Mr Perrottet credited teachers for achieving 95 per cent vaccination “that enabled us to open up our schools safely”, but acknowledged unvaccinated primary schools remained vulnerable to outbreaks.
Sixteen schools were closed for cleaning and contact tracing on Monday following positive COVID-19 tests in their communities.
Sport for students will return next week, with schools able to use external facilities in line with the guidelines for the return of community sport, and stage inter-school sport outside hours.
NSW passed a grim milestone on Monday, topping 500 COVID-19 deaths from the latest outbreak which began in mid-June.
In the 24 hours to 8pm on Sunday, the state recorded 294 new locally acquired cases of the virus and four deaths.
That tally took the total of COVID-related fatalities to 502 in NSW since June 16.
There are 474 COVID-19 patients in NSW hospitals, with 116 in intensive care and 57 of them requiring ventilation.
More than 93 per cent of people 16 and over have had one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine and 85 per cent of adults are fully jabbed.
Almost 78 per cent of 12-15 year olds have had their first vaccination and more than half – 51.5 per cent – are double-dosed.