How safe will schools be when pupils return?

Defend+ Schools Reopening

With schools already reopen in some parts of Scotland, and Prime Minister Boris Johnson stressing it as a “national priority” that all schools reopen follow suit in England next month, just how safe will they be?

The government has faced widespread criticism of the track and trace programme, with many saying it isn’t working and isn’t ready for schools when they reopen.

Boris Johnson has said recently that the risk of children becoming “severely ill from Coronavirus is low”. Education Secretary Gavin Williamson has also commented that there is “little to no evidence that the virus is transmitted at school”.

Are under 18s actually less at risk from Coronavirus?

We’ve heard what the government has to say, but what about the experts? The latest SAGE report from July 9th says it is “strongly in the interests of children for schools to be open”, with evidence suggesting that outbreaks in schools are “extensions” of wider, community ones. The spread of the virus from children to adults appears to be “low”.

According to the Office for National Statistics, (as of July 24th), just six people aged 15 and under have died from Coronavirus in the UK.

Children account for fewer than 2% of cases, the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology has confirmed. They found that transmission in schools appears to be very low, with any confirmed cases were more likely to have been caught from an adult rather than another child.

Royal College of Paediatrics president, Russell Viner said: “Why children don’t particularly transmit it, we don’t really understand”.

15 – 44 years old578
45 – 64 years old5,268
65 – 74 years old8,210
75 – 84 years old18,175
85 years old and above23,758
Coronavirus deaths per age groups

Warwick University researchers have said that reopening schools in England was unlikely to cause a spike in new coronavirus cases, unless social distancing measures were also relaxed significantly.

They however also warned that reopening secondary schools will have the “greatest impact” on transmission, mainly due to older children having more social contacts, leading to increased mixing and transmission.

Professor Neil Ferguson, whose initial modelling at the start of the coronavirus pandemic sparked lockdown, has also warned that large schools and colleges reopening “poses a real risk” of the number of cases “going up quite sharply”. Prof Neil continued: “In terms of the reproduction value (The R Value), opening schools could increase the number by as much as half, but this could be as little as 0.2 or 0.3, but it will go up.

Dr Isabella Eckerle, head of the emerging viruses research group at the University of Geneva has also urged caution: “If we go back to the normal school day, clinging to the wishful thinking that children do not play a role in the pandemic, that will come back to haunt us”.

How are schools making themselves secure?

The official government says there are four essential things schools need to do:

  • Ensure that all pupils who are ill or exhibiting covid-like symptoms should stay at home
  • Install a robust hand and respiratory hygiene cleaning procedure across the whole school site
  • Engage actively with the national track and trace system
  • Where possible maximise social distancing

Schools should ensure that contact levels are minimised by ensuring desks are spaced as much as possible, they are forward-facing in classrooms and that pupils and teaching staff maintain a safe distance. How these will pan out when schools are fully reopen remains to be seen.

What are the risks if children don’t go back to school?

Should the current situation continue as it is now, where only certain year groups and children of key workers were being taught in schools, experts and politicians all agree that there would be damaging long-term effects.

According to a recent study form the Royal Society, forecasts that without any intervention, from the mid 2030s, and for the following 50 years, approximately 25% of the entire workforce would have lower skills, reducing their overall earning potential by 3% a year.

They also highlighted the “considerable” negative impact on children’s mental and physical health, as well as their safety. The “risk of restarting schools is not as high relative to many other activities” the report concluded.

“The experience of most other countries that have already taken this step supports this. By contrast, the evidence on the negative impact of closing schools is considerable and robust”.

Professor of education at the University of Cambridge, Anna Vignoles, said that partially closing schools will be felt particularly by those from poorer backgrounds. “Children from low income households are more likely to lack the resources, space, equipment and home support, to engage fully with remove schooling”.

The UN has said that as much as 100 countries have yet to announce a date for schools to reopen, with general Antonio Guterres warning of a possible “generational catastrophe” in education.


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