The Government's plan to reopen schools to reception, year 1 and year 6 from June 1 has received mixed reactions.
While experts agree children tend to be less severely affected by coronavirus than adults, little is known about how infectious they are.
Scientists agree that testing and tracing is vital in order to further ease lockdown restrictions.
So what do the experts say about the safety of reopening schools?
What are the risks?
Mark Woolhouse, professor of Infectious Disease Epidemiology, University of Edinburgh, has said there are three main risks associated with children returning to school.
He described these as the risk to children, the risk to teachers, and the risk of transmission in the community increasing.
Speaking as an independent researcher, and not in an advisory role, he said: “Covid-19, though a very unpleasant virus, and capable of causing illness, on occasion in any age group, in fact, is very, very very rarely a serious problem in children.
“Staff are of course adults so they are more vulnerable to infection, more vulnerable to symptomatic infection.”
But he added that how vulnerable teachers are in school depends on whether they are considered a major source of outbreaks.
“And so far, the indications from around the world are they are not,” said Prof Woolhouse.
Prof Woolhouse said he knows of no evidence that suggests school staff are at greater risk in the workplace that any other adult in a workplace.
Will allowing some children to return to school increase community transmission?
Prof Woolhouse said it is “definitely a possibility” that opening schools may cause the R rate to increase in the community.
This refers to how many people on average an infected person is likely to pass coronavirus on to.
He explained: “I think the bottom line is until we’ve sorted out this business of whether children do pass on the virus or not, we can’t be sure how much R will go up, but it’s possible, it goes up by a lot less than we currently think.”
Michael Tildesley is an associate professor at Warwick University who sits on a panel within the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), and is modelling the effect opening schools will have.
He said: “Cautiously, I think we’re in a position where we can start to think about opening schools in the next few weeks.
“But these relaxations need to be done gradually, you need to be monitoring it and if necessary prepare to reinstate lockdown measures, including school closures if we do start to see cases rising.”
What effect will social distancing have in schools?
Dr Tildesley said school reopenings need to happen with social-distancing measures in place where possible, even if the children are not transmitting Covid-19.
He explained: “The very fact that they’re mixing, slightly raises the risk to say teachers, for instance.
“I think, overall, probably the risk to the average teacher of mixing with children is low, but I think we’re in a situation at the moment where I would never go and advise in the current climate that we shouldn’t put social-distancing measures in place as we’re reopening.”
Dr Lucy Wenham, lecturer of education at the University of Bristol, said the measures may prove difficult to enforce with very young children, and could also also be traumatic.
“I don’t want to say, it’s child abuse, but it seems it’s a very, it’s a traumatic thing to put children through,” she said.
Dr Wenham said there was no guarantee the young children would be returning to the same teacher, adding: “So, they won’t even be going back to a known teacher so I think it’s usually harrowing, and that’s a bizarre to want to do.
“Mental health has to come first. They’re not going to read or they’re not going to learn anything if they’re traumatised by being in a very unusual situation.”
Should school staff be given Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)?
Dr Tildesley said it might make a difference, but the evidence is not necessarily strong enough yet to suggest that should be advised for all teachers.
Prof Woolhouse said: “If you take the extreme view that children really don’t pass on this infection very much, it’s probably more important for the teachers to wear PPE and stop them spreading it to children, rather than the other way around.
“I would argue the teachers need more protecting than the children.”
Is there an educational argument for sending Reception and Year 1 children back to school in June?
Dr Wenham said she cannot understand the motivation behind starting with the youngest pupils.
She said: “You can think well we begin with socialisation and language development and reading all these things are developed at a very early stage.
“But is a month going to make that much difference.”
She said it would be better for children in Years 6, 10 or 12 to return to make the transition into the next academic year easier, and that those in Years 6, 11 and 13 were missing out on the rite of passage of leaving school.
Dr Wenham added: “The summer holidays are looming, so it seems a massive health risk for very little educational gain.”
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