The Scottish government has published the expert advice it received that led to the announcement last week that school staff should return “at some point” next month and schools should reopen to pupils on 11 August.
The report – Coronavirus (Covid-19): Scientific evidence on schools and ELC settings – reveals that, while the majority of the experts on the Chief Medical Officer’s Advisory Group believed that physical distancing in schools would be needed, there was a minority view that “physical distancing may not be a necessary measure and that fully reopening schools should be considered”.
The advice also states that it would not be “desirable or possible” to implement strict physical distancing between the youngest pupils and instead “smaller groupings, minimising contacts between groups and enhanced hygiene may be put in place that help mitigate the risk of transmission and infection”.
This point was also made by education secretary John Swinney in his statement to the Scottish Parliament this afternoon, when he said that strict physical distancing could impact on children’s “wellbeing”.
Coronavirus: The science behind reopening schools
He also said that the exam diet for next year was being planned, despite calls from teaching unions to cancel the exams in 2021; that the "blended" school and home approach to teaching and learning would end at the "earliest possible opportunity"; and that the return date for schools after the summer holidays of 11 August was “set in stone”.
Responding to questions from shadow education secretary Jamie Greene, Mr Swinney said: “My view is that the 11 August start date for the new term is set in stone. I cannot see it being any earlier than that and I think it’s important to provide clarity to parents on that point.
“There is, of course, the risk that scientific advice indicates even 11 August is not safe for us to reopen the schools but I believe the current direction of the scientific advice available to us contains a significant confidence that we will be able to do so.
“In relation to the duration of the blended learning model, the blended learning model will continue for as long as we require it to operate, but not for a moment longer because I recognise the importance of restoring full-time schooling for pupils as early as possible. My statement did make reference to the fact that if the scientific advice improves that enables us to move out of the blended learning model at the earliest possible opportunity."
He added: “The exam diet for 2021 is being planned just now. We obviously are uncertain what the path of Covid will be in the next 12 months so the Scottish Qualifications Authority will give advice to schools about the importance of capturing evidence of the performance and achievements of young people to ensure that can be properly borne in mind in any certification process in 2021.”
The Scottish government had been under pressure from opposition politicians – in particular, Scottish Labour’s education spokesman, Iain Gray – to publish the scientific advice that its decision to open schools in August was based on.
The scientific guidance modelled Scotland's R number – the rate of reproduction of the virus – based on schools returning on 13 August, with around 5,000 infectious people in Scotland.
This simulation estimated that Scotland's R number would remain at 0.85 before and after schools reopened.
However, the report adds: “Due to the top of the confidence range being close to one, caution is needed.
“Lifting other interventions (eg, on economy or social restrictions) at the same time would need careful consideration as the impact of interventions on R is cumulative and could raise R over one.”
The report summarises the position in terms of the risk to children from Covid-19 as:
- Younger children may be less susceptible to infection from Covid-19 than adults. However, the underlying evidence on this is not strong. There is insufficient evidence to determine whether older children have differing susceptibility to infection from adults. Data suggests the positivity rate of tests for Covid-19 carried out in children has been far lower than for other age groups. Less than 1 per cent of positive tests in Scotland are accounted for by people aged under 15.
- There is a growing amount of evidence that the susceptibility to clinical disease of younger children is lower than for adults. As with susceptibility to infection, there is not enough evidence yet to determine whether susceptibility to disease is different in older children to adults.
- There is generally good evidence that the severity of disease in children is lower than in adults. The latest NRS [National Records of Scotland] data shows that, up to 17 May 2020, there have been no Covid-19 deaths registered amongst people aged under 15 in Scotland.
- There is no evidence to suggest that children transmit the virus any more than adults. Some studies suggest that younger children may transmit less, but this evidence is inconclusive.