Ross Clark

What does the evidence say on re-opening schools?

What does the evidence say on re-opening schools?
A pupil uses a sanitising unit, Picture: Getty
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It is still far from clear whether schools will succeed in re-opening next week, as government ministers, education authorities and unions battle it out over safety – or supposed safety – concerns. Now, as back in May, when the government first proposed re-opening schools, the unions have demanded evidence that it will be safe for children to return to the classroom. The difference now is that we do have real-world evidence on the spread of Covid-19 in schools. Public Health England (PHE) has analysed what happened when over a million children finally returned to school in June.

In the subsequent weeks until the end of term, 70 children and 128 staff tested positive for Covid-19. However, 67 of these were isolated cases – where staff or pupils were presumably infected outside school. The remaining cases were linked to ‘outbreaks’ within school – an ‘outbreak’ involving two of more people. Across the country: for every 1,000 nurseries, 0.5 suffered an outbreak; for primary schools, the figure was 4.8; and for secondary schools, 1.6. In two thirds of in-school transmission cases, the infection passed from staff to staff or staff to students. There were very few cases of students passing the infection to each other, or students passing the infection to their teachers. This confirms earlier findings from Iceland, where every case of Covid-19 infection in the country was traced, and not one was found of a child passing the infection to their parents.

All the above figures relate to the number of infections: they don’t imply that all of those infected develop symptoms or suffer serious harm from the disease. It needs to be stated that the re-opening of schools in June was not complete, and involved only reception, years 1 and 6 in primary schools, and years 10 and 12 in secondary schools. Next week, by contrast, the government intends all schools to fully reopen. Nevertheless, the PHE research suggests that schools are not significant seed-beds of Covid-19 infection. During this temporary period of schools opening, in which 198 staff and pupils tested positive for Covid 19 in schools, 25,470 cases were identified in England as a whole.

There have been certain studies which claim that re-opening schools could cause a resurgence in the disease. However, these have been exercises in modelling – the inadequacies of which have become glaringly obvious throughout the epidemic. This PHE study is real world evidence, which should count for a lot more. With the Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty clearly on the side of re-opening schools, saying that children will suffer far more harm if they do not reopen, there ought to be no barrier towards children returning to the classroom.