Haphazardly reopening schools could mean people abandon social distancing, government's own scientists warn

Joe Gamp
Contributor, Yahoo News UK
An empty classroom at Manor Park School and Nursery in Knutsford, Cheshire, the day after Prime Minister Boris Johnson put the UK in lockdown to help curb the spread of the coronavirus.

Evidence on whether children are to transmit coronavirus in schools remains “inconclusive”, according to the government’s own scientific advisers.

The government is aiming to reopen schools from 1 June, which has led to concerns by some parents, teachers and unions over the proposed plan.

On Friday, a new report from the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) said reopening schools without clear evidence could risk people abandoning social distancing measures as a whole.

The report says: "Interventions must be eased in a logical manner. Failure to do so will influence the number of parents who are willing to send their children to school.

“It will be vital to explain why and how school reopening is safe, and to ensure that changing restrictions is not a signal that the risk from coronavirus is over and that it is safe to resume other activities or to abandon social distancing.

"It is important to explain why resuming school attendance is safer to resume or must be resumed for other important reasons (such as to reduce harm to vulnerable children), compared with other activities, such as going to work.

"For example, it may be confusing if individuals were encouraged to return to school, but the number of times that they are allowed to leave the house each day remains the same.

"Similarly, it is likely to be difficult to convince parents that it is safe to send their children to school if offices are still shut.

“SPI-B’s previous work on phased changes in activity restrictions and principles for the design of social and behavioural interventions have highlighted the need for a credible order to changing restrictions (e.g. from least to more at risk).”

SAGE's new report said teachers do not appear to be at a greater risk of catching Covid-19 than other professions – but there is still some risk if schools reopen.

Lulu Byrne aged 13 and Maisy Byrne aged 15 take part in home schooling, studying mathmatics, english and sciences from their home in Liverpool as schools reopen after the Easter break, but classroom attendance is limited to the children of key workers while the UK continues in lockdown as the fight against coronavirus continues. PA Photo. Picture date: Monday April 20, 2020. Education Secretary Gavin Williamson said Sunday that no date has been set for re-opening schools in England. See PA story HEALTH Coronavirus Education. Photo credit should read: Peter Byrne/PA Wire

It suggested that younger teachers’ attendance in schools could be prioritised in order to decrease the likelihood of infection for school staff in more vulnerable groups.

The document continued: "Evidence remains inconclusive on both the susceptibility and infectivity of children, but the balance of evidence suggests that both may be lower than in adults.”

The advisory group also said a robust testing and tracing system would be needed for schools to fully reopen.

NASUWT general secretary Patrick Roach says government and local authorities risked legal action if teachers are forced to return to the classroom from 1 June. (Getty Images)

Other contextual issues – including whether families have black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) members – must be taken into account when assessing the impact of relaxing school closures on transmission, the paper said.

The review comes after education unions, council leaders and MPs demanded to see the scientific evidence underpinning proposals to send pupils in Reception, Year 1 and Year 6 back to school next month.

Patrick Roach, general secretary of the NASUWT, said: “The evidence presented by Sage in terms of justifying the decision by Government to start to reopen schools from June 1 is inconclusive.”

He added: “The Sage papers published today will only add to teachers’ uncertainty and anxiety. The NASUWT remains of the view that no school should reopen until it can be demonstrated that it is safe to do so.”

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