Re-opening of schools – what does the evidence tell us

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Schools have been at the heart of a heated debate recently and the decision to either keep them open or shut has been feeding social media arguments for weeks.

At the moment of writing this article, schools in Scotland will remain close after the recent decision taken by the Scottish Government to help stop the spread of coronavirus, following the Covid-19 wave after the Christmas break.

This decision will be reviewed on 19th  but remote learning is expected to be the new reality for at least the month of January.

Both UK and Scottish Governments aimed to keep schools open and it was made clear that they would close only if absolutely inevitable.

According to the World Health Organisation, open schools contribute to pupils’ social and mental well-being, facilitate access to essential services and allow parents to go to work.

If you are a doom-scrolling addict like me, you will have seen that there are many people, including epidemiologists, teachers and parents who think that it would be safer for everyone if schools remained shut, as the potential risks clearly outweigh the benefits.

What’s the role of kids in covid-19 transmission?

According to Deepti Gurdasani, senior lecturer in epidemiology in Queen Mary University of London “children and schools have always played an important role in transmission”.

Credit: Twitter

The lecturer published an interesting Twitter thread explaining the complexity of factors determining the role play in transmission.

Ms Gurdasani mentions that in order to get a better understanding we need to think of the transmission from children as a combination of the variables below:

  • How likely a child is get to infected
  • How likely a child is to get exposed &
  • How likely a child is to transmit when infected & level of contact with others

 

So, are school closures the way forward?

study carried out across more than 200 countries showed that among all interventions studied, closing educational intuitions was the second most effective.

Another study published in The Lancet examined different non-pharmaceutical interventions and the impact of introducing and lifting them: one of the highest changes in R was for school closures.

I think a balanced  article from the peer-reviewed British Medical Journal may help us answer this question. It mentions that “evidence to support the effectiveness of global school closures in controlling Covid-19 is sparse.

“There is continued uncertainty about the degree to which school children are susceptible to and transmit covid-19.”

The authors, taking into account the well documented harms related to prolonged school closures, suggest that governments must balance the risks of reopening schools against the negative impact of keeping them shut and propose five key principles to guide decisions, including infection control measures and protection of teachers and vulnerable students.

However, it seems that these principles haven’t been successfully implemented when reopening schools in August.

Last December, EIS published two briefing papers, with responses from almost 19,000 teachers in primary and secondary education, that highlighted concerns over  the safety of the classroom environment for staff and pupils.

Many teachers used social media to express their frustration:

Credit: Twitter

 

What does the Scottish Government say?

Commenting on the latest guidance published on 21st December, Education Secretary John Swinney said:

“These exceptional phased reopening arrangements are being put in place in light of the latest developments in the path of the virus. They are designed to allow an assessment of community transmission after the festive period.

“Schools that planned to open this week should follow their existing end of term arrangements. This decision has been taken because we judge that current levels of prevalence in Scotland remain safe for schools to open.”

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