Schools have ‘limited role’ in spreading Covid

Studies in Germany and Norway have concluded that opening schools hasn't increased the number of Covid-19 infections
22nd October 2020, 12:58pm


Schools have ‘limited role’ in spreading Covid
Schools Don't Spread Covid

Schools may have a limited role in spreading coronavirus, according to new evidence from studies conducted in Europe.

Studies in Germany and Norway found that reopening schools after the summer break has not caused the numbers of Covid-19 infections to rise, as first reported by the Financial Times.

The findings come as the Department for Education has stopped publishing the figures on how many schools are partially closed because of coronavirus.

Tes also revealed yesterday that the DfE has removed a paragraph from its Covid guidance stating that schools are not considered "high-risk settings".

News: DfE cuts 'schools aren't high risk' line from guidance

Related: DfE scraps data showing rise in partly closed schools

Isolating: Nearly half of secondaries have pupils off after potential contact with Covid case inside school 

Warning: Schools told they 'needn't bother' calling DfE advice line with new coronavirus cases

A report by the Norwegian National Institute of Public Health found that there are limited cases of Covid-19 infections in schools - findings echoed by a survey of education ministries across Germany by a national media group there.

Another German study, conducted by the Institute of Labour Economics, concluded that schools re-openings "under strict hygiene measures combined with quarantine and containment measures" didn't increase the number of new Covid-19 infections.

It even found that the end of summer breaks "had a negative effect on the numbers of new confirmed cases".

The study's authors stress the results should be read within the context of schools reopening in Germany, where strict measures in place at schools were combined with increased compliance with Covid-safety measures in society.

The study reads: "First, schools re-opened after the summer breaks under strict hygiene and containment measures, including mandatory mask-wearing and teaching in fixed groups. Detection of individual infections among students or teachers led to rapid testing and quarantining of contact persons.

"Second, the effect of the end of summer breaks has to be interpreted against a context of very low community spread and decreasing acceptance of social distancing measures."

"School re-openings increased parents' incentives to comply more thoroughly with social distancing and hygiene measures to avoid their children falling ill with symptoms similar to those of Covid-19."

The authors conclude that testing and containment measures could be sufficient to keep schools open.

"Freely available rapid testing for teachers and students as well as decentralised quarantine and containment measures appear to be sufficient to keep the pandemic under control and simultaneously allow for universal in-class teaching," the authors state.

Commenting on the findings of the study, Julie McCulloch, director of policy at the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), said that while schools have been following government guidance on how to keep staff and pupils safe, the difficulty in accessing testing has left many having to self-isolate.

She said: "There is clearly still much to learn about the role of schools in the spread of Covid. Schools in England have followed the government's guidance on implementing protective measures.

"However, schools and colleges have been let down by the inadequacy of the test and trace system in England. This has led to many pupils and staff being unable to access tests in a timely manner, and so having to self-isolate for longer than may have been necessary."

She added: "Many school and college leaders are also not receiving adequate public health support when dealing with positive cases. This support has often been late and inconsistent, meaning some leaders are having to make difficult decisions about how to respond to an outbreak in their school or college without the expert support they were promised.

"Leaders are doing everything they can to keep pupils in school or college, and to keep everyone in their communities as safe as possible. They need better support from the government to continue to do this."

Another study, a meta-analysis yet to be peer-reviewed, concluded that there is limited high-quality evidence to understand the extent of Covid transmission in schools and compare it to community transmission.  

A database of "superspreaders" being compiled at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine also gives some hope, showing that schools are rarely featured.

Assistant professor Gwen Knight told the FT: "Schools should be important given that so many networks come together [there] - with kids, parents and social life," she said. "But the signal doesn't seem to be very strong. We are finding it quite hard to find direct evidence of transmission within the school setting, but we are not doing enough testing."

Commenting on the studies, Kevin Courtney joint general secretary of the National Education Union told Tes: "The evidence for England, where infection rates among school age students are soaring, does not  seem to support the same conclusions.  In consequence here the DfE has just revised its advice to schools to remove the statement that they are not considered high risk compared to other workplaces.  

"In Germany class sizes are smaller, space standards are better and children are more likely to be taught in fixed groups. The further measures in Germany on masks and prompt testing are far more robust than in England.

"All of that reduces bubbles sizes and increase social distancing compared with schools here - we made the the need for movement on all this clear in messages to Government before wider school opening."

A DfE spokesperson said: "Schools have put in a range of protective measures, endorsed by Public Health England, to reduce the risk of transmission.

"The Chief and Deputy Chief Medical Officers have repeatedly confirmed children do not drive infections in the community in the same way as with other infections like flu. Their assessment remains the risks to children's education and wellbeing from not attending school outweighs any other risks.

"Testing capacity is the highest it has ever been, but we are seeing a significant demand for tests. It is vital that children and school staff only get a test if they develop coronavirus symptoms."

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