Covid-19 school safety guidance, explained

The government has offered guidance on how to make schools more Covid-secure, but what is the science behind the measures? We ask the experts

Grainne Hallahan

Coronavirus: Teachers and pupils are having to clean classrooms themselves because schools can't afford to pay for extra cleaning, warn headteachers

WATCH: Transmission in schools

The task of reducing the transmission of Covid-19 in schools is incredibly challenging, relying on factors including ventilation, masks, bubbles and lots more. 

The Department for Education (DfE) has produced guidance on what adjustments need to be made, but does this go far enough? And will it actually reduce transmission in schools? We asked experts for their thoughts. 

Professor Emanuel Goldman works in the department of microbiology, biochemistry and molecular genetics at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School in the US. His research focuses on the risk of transmission by "fomites", the medical term for objects and surfaces that can pass along an infectious pathogen.

Jack Gilbert is a professor in pediatrics at the University of California San Diego, also in the US. His work looks at applying microbial forensic methods to track how SARS-CoV-2 spreads between people. Gilbert has been investigating how much virus Covid-19 patients are shedding in hospital, and the transmission to the doctors and nurses who are caring for them.   

Here, they share their thoughts on what is effective, and what isn’t, when it comes to limiting transmission:

1. Secondary school students wearing masks

What the guidance says: Where pupils in Year 7 and above are educated, we recommend that face coverings should be worn by adults and pupils when moving around the premises, outside of classrooms, such as in corridors and communal areas where social distancing cannot easily be maintained. Face coverings do not need to be worn by pupils when outdoors on the premises.

JGSchools should not be open if the kids are not wearing masks on school property. In our schools in Southern California, all parents, teachers and children coming to the school must be wearing a mask and the kids wear them all day (except for four 10-minute mask breaks where they have to isolate from everyone else outside). Wearing a mask reduces your risk of infection – such an easy fix.

EG: Masks in hallways and masks in classrooms are definitely a good idea. We should use masks as much as possible. This is a virus you catch by breathing, not by touching.

2. Cleaning and quarantining resources such as books, or paper handouts

What the guidance saysResources that are shared between classes or bubbles...should be cleaned frequently. When sharing equipment between different bubbles, you should either: clean it before it is moved between bubbles [or] allow them to be left unused for a period of 48 hours.

JG: I think it will have such a small impact upon overall infectivity rates to almost be a pointless waste of there any risk at all? Yes, there is always the possibility of that happening – but the probability is incredibly low.

The likelihood that there would be enough particles that pass from someone’s face to a book that survive in the time it takes for that book to be taken back to another student or teacher and put into their nasal cavity...the probability is incredibly low.

EG: This is mostly nonsense. The virus is fragile when it’s outside of a human, and it decays. [Experiments that show the virus stays for six to eight days] have no connection to the real world, they’re starting out with humongous amounts of virus and that’s not what you’re going to find.

Even if someone is infected, they’ll have 50 or 100 virus particles, and they’re starting out with millions of them.

2. Ventilating rooms

What the guidance saysWhen your school is in operation, it is important to ensure it is well ventilated and a comfortable teaching environment is maintained.

JG: Classes moved outdoors and taught in the open air would be awesome if possible, because not only would this reduce the risk of infection, it would have numerous benefits for children’s health – fresh air, diverse microbial and allergic stimulants and so on. Of course, this doesn't work well in cold, wet weather or highly polluted areas.

If you have to teach indoors then classrooms, where the windows are kept open, are ideal, as it increases the amount of air exchange.

The aim is to not let the virus build up inside the air of a room so if you can keep that air flowing in and out then it should dilute the virus, which again reduces the chances of exposure.

EG: If there is a low transmission rate anyway, then I think masks should do the job in that environment.

If there are high transmission rates, then I would be worried without ventilation about airflow in that environment, because the masks are not 100 per cent, there is some risk of face-mask interface and there is a possibility of the virus getting in around the mask.

4. Cleaning outdoor play equipment

What the guidance says"Outdoor playground equipment should be more frequently cleaned than normal."

JG: Is it possible that there could be enough virus particles left behind by the previous bubble on the playing material and they could be picked up and transmitted? It’s possible.

Is it probable? No...It would have to be an extraordinary confluence of events for another child to come along and pick up enough of infected material and infect themselves for it to actually occur.

If that same child was in a room without proper ventilation or filtration and without a mask, the chance of infection would go through the roof.

EG: That’s really absurd because the sunlight kills the virus almost instantly. Playgrounds could be one of the safest places you could possibly be. 

What does this mean for schools?

It is clear that some measures will be more effective than others. But all are part of creating a culture in schools that reminds everyone of their responsibility.

What's more, teachers will quite rightly be feeling nervous about the return, and it is only natural that we should be taking every precaution possible to ensure the safety of all those in school – and by extension, the whole community.

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Grainne Hallahan

Grainne Hallahan

Grainne Hallahan is Tes recruitment editor and senior content writer at Tes

Find me on Twitter @heymrshallahan

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