Scientists warn transmission increase is likely as government sets out plans to return to schools

Boris Johnson and an empty classroom
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Education unions have warned reopening schools in full would be “reckless”, as scientists say it could lead to increased transmission.

This evening, the prime minister is expected to announce the opening of all schools from 8 March. This is despite several education organisations and scientists calling for a phased reopening to prioritise safety of staff and students.

The announcement follows research suggesting reopening schools will lead to the R number rising to above 1, increasing transmission.

‘Wider opening must be safe and sustainable’

Nine education organisations, including the National Education Union (NEU), the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT), and GMB have implored the government to be cautious about reopening.

In a joint statement, they said:

We are committed to bringing all children and young people back into the classroom as soon as possible. However, it is counterproductive if there is a danger of causing another surge in the virus, and the potential for a further period of lockdown. Wider opening must be safe and sustainable.

We therefore urge the Prime Minister to commit to 8 March only if the scientific evidence is absolutely clear that this is safe, and at that point go no further than a phased return of children and young people with sufficient time to assess the impact before moving to the next phase.

Read on...

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They added:

This would seem a reckless course of action. It could trigger another spike in Covid infections, prolong the disruption of education, and risk throwing away the hard-won progress made in suppressing the virus over the course of the latest lockdown.

Unions have advocated for a phased return for schools, with enhanced safety regulations, such as better ventilation and smaller class sizes to allow for social distancing.

Increasing infection rates

The R number, which is currently between 0.6 and 0.9, determines the rate at which coronavirus (Covid-19) is reproducing. When it’s above 1, transmission of the virus is increasing.

According to a recent pre-print from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, modelling suggests a full reopening of schools will push the R number above 1.

By combining estimates of children’s susceptibility, infectiousness, and social contacts, researchers estimated the R number could increase to between 1.1 and 1.5. When estimates were adjusted for a partial reopening of schools, the R number increased by less.

The criteria for safe schools

Independent SAGE, a group of scientists providing advice about coronavirus, have outlined a plan for the safe return to schools. The group recommended a phased return, alongside increased safety measures within schools.

Professor Susan Michie, Independent SAGE member and director of UCL’s Centre for Behaviour Change, told The Canary schools could reopen on 8 March if they were safe.

Professor Michie said this means:

ensuring that they’re well ventilated and ensuring that there’s sufficient space between children, which does actually mean opening up more spaces and bringing in more staff. It also means ensuring that schoolchildren wear face masks where appropriate and ensure good facilities and routines for hand hygiene during the day. The community transmission rate needs to be driven down really low and kept low with a much more effective test, trace and isolate system that can then deal with any outbreaks that will inevitably occur as the schools fully open.

Those would be the conditions under which I would be relaxed about schools opening. If the government doesn’t do all these things, and I haven’t seen evidence of them doing these things, then I think it’s going to be risky and that transmission rates are likely to increase.

Professor Michie suggested primary schools going back first, with a blended learning experience for secondary schools students, with some in and some out of the classroom until there is confidence that R can be kept well below 1. She emphasised the importance of all students being provided with devices and internet connection for online learning.

Professor Michie added:

even by March 8, we’re still going to have high levels of transmission in the community. So there will be transmission in schools; there will be infection being brought back into homes. We know that’s much more likely among secondary schoolchildren, who are like adults in terms of their infectiousness, than primary schoolchildren.

What we want to do is have schools open and remain open. If the things that I’ve mentioned aren’t done, the problem is that R is likely to increase and there will be outbreaks in the absence of a good test, trace and supported isolation system to deal with the outbreaks. In these circumstances, we risk having teachers and other staff absent with the consequence that classes or even whole schools may be closed again.

School opening across the world

As vaccination numbers increase in higher-income countries, governments are considering how to reopen schools.

President Biden has said he would like K-8 schools (kindergarten to 8th grade) open by 30 April, his 100th day in office. The situation in the US is more complicated: data company Burbio, which has been tracking school reopening, reports that around 40% of K-12 (all primary and secondary education in the US) students are already learning in person. In-person learning is in opposition to the CDC’s guidelines for schools in areas of high transmission.

Germany is currently in the process of reopening schools in some regions, despite concerns about rising cases and new variants. Schools that have reopened are keeping class sizes smaller than usual, as well as enforcing safety measures like ventilation and mask wearing.

Featured image via Flickr/Allison Meier & Wikimedia Commons/Foreign and Commonwealth Office

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