What is the science behind Covid-19 and schools?

The Prime Minister has refused to guarantee that pupils will return to class before Easter.

Leah McCallum (left) and Rebecca Ross, S4 students at St Columba’s High School, Gourock, put on their protective face masks (Jane Barlow/PA)
Leah McCallum (left) and Rebecca Ross, S4 students at St Columba’s High School, Gourock, put on their protective face masks (Jane Barlow/PA)

Boris Johnson is coming under pressure to reopen England’s schools before Easter.

But what is the science behind Covid-19 and schools?

– Are teachers and school staff at risk?

Covid-19 death rates among educational professionals were not “statistically significantly different” to those in the general population, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) has found.

The rate for male teachers and educational professionals in England and Wales in 2020 was 18.4 deaths per 100,000, compared with 31.4 for all males aged 20 to 64; while for women it was 9.8 compared with 16.8.

For individual teaching occupations, the ONS said it was only possible to calculate a reliable rate for secondary education teaching professionals, with 39.2 deaths per 100,000 males and 21.2 per 100,000 females.

Among secondary school teachers, Covid-19 death rates were 39.2 deaths per 100,000 males, compared with 31.4 for all males aged 20 to 64, and 21.2 per 100,000 females, compared with 16.8.

But the ONS said these were “not statistically significantly different than those of the same age and sex in the wider population”.

– Is it safe for children to be in school?

Children are less likely to get seriously ill if they contract coronavirus, research has shown.

A study examining children admitted to hospital with Covid-19, published in the BMJ in August, found that the proportion of children who get severe Covid-19 is “rare” and death is “vanishingly rare”.

Researchers in the study stressed the absolute risk to children being admitted to hospital is “tiny” and the risk of needing critical care is “even tinier”.

Meanwhile, experts are concerned about the impact of lengthy school closures on the wellbeing of children and young people.

Professor Russell Viner, president of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, told MPs last week that children have experienced “considerable mental health harms” amid the pandemic, and he said anecdotally paediatricians are saying there is “more pressure on eating disorder services”

– Is there more transmission in schools?

England’s deputy chief medical officer Jenny Harries told the education select committee that pupils can transmit coronavirus in schools, but she said it is “not a significant driver” of large-scale community infections.

In December, a leading Public Health England (PHE) expert said school outbreaks may be due to the virus being taken into each school several times rather than transmission between pupils.

Early findings from the small study looking at coronavirus in schools suggested that the proportion of schoolchildren and teachers with coronavirus mirrors the proportion in the local community.

Dr Shamez Ladhani, a PHE consultant epidemiologist and chief investigator on the study, said it was unclear how many of the infections were occurring in school, outside, or at home.

– How do schools impact the virus spread in the wider population?

During a meeting between Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) members and ministers on December 22, experts said schools needed to be closed to lower transmission.

Sage said even a full lockdown similar to the one in spring would be unlikely to get the reproductive number – or R value – below 1.

“R would be lower with schools closed, with closure of secondary schools likely to have a greater effect than closure of primary schools,” the minutes from the Sage meeting said.

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