In 2020, school and early childhood educational centre (ECEC) closures affected over 1.5 billion school-aged children globally as part of the COVID-19 pandemic response. Attendance at school and access to ECEC is critical to a child's learning, well-being and health. School closures increase inequities by disproportionately affecting vulnerable children. Here, we summarise the role of children and adolescents in Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) transmission and that of schools and ECECs in community transmission and describe the Australian experience. In Australia, most SARS-CoV-2 cases in schools were solitary (77% in NSW and 67% in Victoria); of those that did progress to an outbreak, >90% involved fewer than 10 cases. Australian and global experience has demonstrated that SARS-CoV-2 is predominantly introduced into schools and ECECs during periods of heightened community transmission. Implementation of public health mitigation strategies, including effective testing, tracing and isolation of contacts, means schools and ECECs can be safe, not drivers of transmission. Schools and ECEC are essential services and so they should be prioritised to stay open for face-to-face learning. This is particularly critical as we continue to manage the next phase of the COVID-19 pandemic.