As relieved NSW parents and children say goodbye to home schooling, the premier is hailing a new-found confidence in the state.
"There is a sense of positivity and confidence that we haven't seen for some time," Premier Dominic Perrottet said on Monday.
"It's confidence that's getting the state back on track and that's what got us through last year and will get us through this year."
He was speaking as more than 500,000 students in years two to 11 returned to school on Monday, a week after those in years one, 12 and kindergarten headed back to the classroom.
He praised the "extraordinary" effort of teachers - with 95 per cent already vaccinated - saying "that enabled us to open up our schools safely".
However, 16 schools were closed for cleaning and contact tracing on Monday following positive COVID-19 tests in their communities.
Mr Perrottet acknowledged unvaccinated primary schools remained vulnerable to outbreaks, but it was important to get children back to school.
The state's roadmap out of lockdown was continually being revised, and hinged on improving vaccination rates, he said.
Ninety-three per cent of people 16 and over have had one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine and 84.8 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 - 50.8 per cent - are double-dosed.
"It's been an extraordinary effort from everybody across the state," Mr Perrottet said
"The success of the vaccination rate and the pace that's occurred hasn't just been nation-leading but world-leading and that means we've been able to get people back into work, businesses open again and provide greater opportunity for people across the state."
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.
Parents will also receive a $100 voucher to get swimming lessons for kids in kindergarten or preschool from December, under the "First Lap" program.
"Because of COVID restrictions, our kindy kids have missed a crucial window of being able to develop the skills they need to stay safe in the water," Mr Perrottet said.
"It's really important they don't miss out, so we're making sure they can also access the First Lap voucher program now that our pools are back open for lessons."
However, 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.
However, epidemiologist Catherine Bennett from Deakin University said 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 told the ABC.
"It all comes off the back of fantastic vaccination numbers, and that really does make a difference," she said.
Australian Associated Press