Coronavirus: Reopening of schools 'unlikely to cause huge problems', disease expert says

Empty floor spaces in the Reception 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.
Empty floor spaces in a classroom at Manor Park School and Nursery in Knutsford, Cheshire, the day after Boris Johnson put the UK in lockdown. (PA)

An expert in diseases has insisted that pupils heading back to school during the coronavirus pandemic “will not cause huge problems”.

Boris Johnson announced at the weekend that the government would look at reopening primary schools for pupils in years 1 and 6 at the start of June if it was deemed safe to do so.

Matt Keeling, a professor of populations and disease at the University of Warwick, backed up claims from the Health Information and Quality Authority (HIQA), which said children are not substantially contributing to the spread of COVID-19 in their household or in schools.

In this grab taken from video issued by Downing Street on Sunday, May 10, 2020, Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson delivers an address on lifting the country's lockdown amid the coronavirus pandemic. (Downing Street via AP)
Boris Johnson said that schools may begin to start to reopen at the start of June. (AP)

Keeling said “all the current evidence suggests that children are not suffering substantially from this pandemic” – meaning that opening some school classes is unlikely to push R (the rate of the spread of infection) above one.

He added: “The idea of only half the children being in school should mean that classes can be half the size, which will help with social distancing, further preventing a substantial rise in R.

“This would all suggest that any phased opening of school is unlikely to cause huge problems.”

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Risk of transmission

HIQA has published summaries investigating the international evidence on immunity and the spread of coronavirus by children and it found that, while evidence is limited, children are not significant contributors to the spread.

HIQA deputy chief executive and director of health technology assessment Dr Mairin Ryan said: "One study suggests that, while there is high transmission of COVID-19 among adults aged 25 years or older, transmission is lower in younger people, particularly in those under 14 years of age.

"An Australian study that examined potential spread from 18 confirmed (nine students and nine staff) cases to over 800 close contacts in 15 different schools found that no teacher or staff member contracted COVID-19 from any of the initial school cases.

"One child from a primary school and one child from a high school may have contracted COVID-19 from the initial cases at their schools.”

Social distancing ‘impossible’

Paul Whiteman, the leader of the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT), warned that primary schools will struggle to operate smaller class sizes and encourage young children to take part in social distancing if they reopen next month.

Whiteman said there are a number of "difficulties" with the government's guidance on safely reopening schools by 1 June, adding that there "isn't enough understanding of the scientific basis" for the return to schools next month for confidence to exist among parents.

Addressing a virtual Education Select Committee, Whiteman said: "If social distancing is as we understand it now – the two-metre rule to be applied in schools – there are very many schools that are saying it is simply impossible to achieve.”

Whiteman added that it is hardest to maintain social distancing, as well as good hygiene levels, with the younger year groups.

"Social distancing is going to be a massive problem," he said.

Back to school guidelines

The Department for Education (DfE) issued guidelines on Monday that said primary school class sizes should be limited to 15 pupils and outdoor space should be utilised.

The advice calls for schools to stagger lunch and break times, as well as drop-off and pick-up times, to reduce the number of pupils moving around.

It adds that schools should also consider introducing one-way circulation, or placing a divider down the middle of the corridor.

But Whiteman said schools would struggle to accommodate the advised 15 pupils in their classrooms.

His comments came after the government announced its ambition for all primary school pupils in England to go back to school for a month before the summer.

The government expects children to be able to return to nurseries and childcare settings, and for Reception, year 1 and year 6 pupils to be back in school, from 1 June at the earliest.

Union pushback

Kevin Courtney, joint general secretary of the National Education Union (NEU), urged members on Tuesday not to engage with planning for a 1 June return until further advice had been issued.

A poll from the union suggests that a third of parents do not immediately plan to send their children back to school once lockdown measures are relaxed.

The survey of 1,000 parents found that nearly half (49%) said they would send their children back to school as soon as it reopens, but 33% said they plan to delay the return.

Jon Richards, head of education at Unison, which represents school support staff, also advised members against making plans until a joint position was agreed with the education unions.

And the NASUWT teaching union said if schools are unable to open safely before September, because they cannot make arrangements to safeguard staff and pupils, then this position should be accepted.

A DfE spokesperson said: "The welfare of children and staff has been at the heart of all decision making.

"We have engaged with the unions throughout the past seven weeks and will continue to do so, including to develop further guidance for the sector."

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