The thought of kids going back to school has become a beacon of hope for Sydney parents after almost two months of juggling home learning with work and other commitments under lockdown.
But with daily COVID-19 case numbers regularly reaching record highs in New South Wales and no vaccine available for kids under 12, many parents say they are feeling conflicted about sending their kids back.
Some parents are calling for the planned staggered return to schools in October and November to be made voluntary, with continued home learning also offered as an option.
Others say the government needs to provide more detail on how the risks of transmission in schools will be mitigated.
Under the NSW government's plan, announced by Premier Gladys Berejiklian last Friday, kindergarten and year one students will resume face-to-face learning in just under two months – on October 25 – at the same time year 12 will be allowed full access to their school.
The rest of the students in both primary and high school will go back on November 8, the sixth week of term four.
Schools in areas of concern, of which there are currently 12, will not reopen until they are no longer considered a hotspot.
For Kate Walther, from Turramurra in Sydney's upper north shore, the decision on whether she will send back her children – Lachlan in year six and Lucy in year four – is especially fraught.
Lucy, who is now 10, was born premature when Ms Walther was 26 weeks pregnant.
She spent her first six months in hospital with respiratory distress syndrome and battling chronic lung conditions.
Although Lucy made a remarkable recovery and is now healthy, her specialist recommended extra tests on her lungs when the first wave of the pandemic hit last year.
"The tests showed she still has a level of scarring in her lungs and a partial collapse in her right lung," Ms Walther said.
"She is definitely a particularly high risk for COVID."
Ms Walther said when schools closed for the first time last year she pulled her daughter out of school a week earlier, on the advice of her specialist.
She said she was not yet sure what she would do when the time came for them to go back to school in November.
"I'm really stuck on what to do," she said.
"When kids weren't getting and passing on COVID it wasn't such an issue but now, of course, the game has changed."
While case numbers were currently low and vaccination rates high in Turramurra, her son attended a different school to her daughter, and it was one where students travelled from all over the city, she said.
"My son would most likely be fine, but if he brought it home that could be really problematic," she said.
"On the other hand, I understand their mental health requirements as well, and the possible impact of sending one back to school and not the other."
Ms Walther said she would like to see more details released by the government on how they were planning to reduce the risks of infections spreading through schools.
"The thing that is really worrying me moving forward is that I don't know that there has been a lot of detailed planning," she said.
"I don't have a lot of confidence that they are looking into things like filtration systems in schools, which, if you look at the US studies and the information coming out overseas, they are a huge factor in reducing infections in schools."
Last week, Associate Professor Donna Green, an environmental scientist in the UNSW Digital Grid Futures Institute, wrote to Education Minister Sarah Mitchell offering to share her expertise and help in procuring air filters for school classrooms, the Sydney Morning Herald reported.
The NSW Department of Education said in a statement it was "working closely with NSW Health and will continue to follow their advice in relation to school ventilation".
Ms Walther said she would ideally like parents to be given the choice of continuing home learning, especially if the COVID-19 situation deteriorated in her area.
"I would just like to option to keep her home if we feel like it is getting too unsafe," she said.
"I know there are a number of high-risk kids at Lucy's school whose parents are not sending them back and they are going to do distance education. It's not their ideal, they are being forced into it."
Other parents have also expressed similar hopes the return to school will be made voluntary, with one mum starting an online petition.
The NSW Department of Education has indicated home learning will not be provided by schools to parents who do not wish to send their children back with their cohort.
"Teachers will only be asked to do one job – either teach in the classroom or deliver Learning for Home," a spokesperson said.
"Once students return to face-to-face learning, teachers will be delivering lessons in the classroom.
"We will ensure that parents are supported during this transition."
In an explainer published by nine.com.au, infectious diseases paediatrician Robert Booy said while more children were getting infected by the Delta strain of the virus, it was still a mild illness for them in the overwhelming majority of cases.
Parents should take heart that, so far, no children have died from COVID-19 in Australia, he said.
Health statistics from the UK, where the Delta strain has been in circulation for six months, also showed paediatric admissions had not risen significantly under Delta, compared to the Alpha strain in January, he said.
Ms Mitchell said last Friday the government's return to school plan was a "safe and sensible approach" which also balanced the mental health needs of children.
"We know that the best teaching and learning happens in the classroom, but we also know it's really important for the social and emotional wellbeing of our students to be with their friends and back with their teachers," Ms Mitchell said.
Cindy Lee, from Strathfield South, is another parent who is concerned about sending her children back to school.
Living in one of the current listed LGAs of concern, Ms Lee does not know when her two daughters – one of whom is in kindergarten and the other is in year three – will be asked to go back.
However, Ms Lee said she had real reservations about sending her children back to school until case numbers dropped dramatically or a vaccine was made available for kids under 12.
"I'm really worried," she said.
"When I look at the news, and I look at how many kids are getting this stuff, it's really serious and it just feels like so many people are deliberately underplaying that in a bid to open up schools again.
"Don't get me wrong, I obviously want the kids to go back, but there's no talk about how they're going to keep them safe.
"They are saying it's a pandemic of the unvaccinated and guess who can't get vaccinated – our kids."
Ms Lee said the mixed messaging she was hearing from the premier was making parents like her even more concerned, pointing to comments made by Ms Berejiklian earlier this week that October would likely be the peak month for COVID-19 hospitalisations.
"She is talking about peak hospitalisations in October, which is when kindergarten students are due to go back," Ms Lee said.
"It's just diabolical. Why would you send kindergarten back to school in the month where our health system is likely to be overwhelmed?
"Unless they can guarantee to us that they are going to be providing a safe environment for my child to learn in, why would I risk my kids?"
Ms Lee said she would also like home learning to be made available as an option for families who choose not to send their children back immediately.
Ms Lee said the Department of Education could be more flexible, and suggested students opting to learn from home could be grouped into local areas and taught by the same teacher, perhaps someone who needed to work from home due to medical issues.
"I understand there would be a lot of working in organising something like that but there are many ways to skin a cat," she said.
Contact reporter Emily McPherson at firstname.lastname@example.org.