How safe is it for children to return to England’s schools?

Credit: PA

Prime Minister Boris Johnson has led calls for parents to send their children back to England’s schools next month.

As teachers prepare to welcome back all pupils following the coronavirus shutdown, here's a look at the safety and logistics of schools reopening.

  • What have the experts said?

The UK’s chief medical officers have warned children are more at risk of long-term harm if they do not attend school than if they return.

In a joint statement, the advisers said children have an “exceptionally low risk of dying” from the disease and “very few, if any” children and teenagers would come to long-term harm from the virus solely by attending school.

  • What is the latest scientific evidence?

A study by Public Health England (PHE), published on Sunday, found there were 67 single confirmed cases, four “co-primary cases” (two or more linked cases) and 30 outbreaks of Covid-19 in schools during June.

It said the majority of cases linked to outbreaks were in staff, transmission between students was “very rare”, and where children did contract the virus, they were more likely to catch it at home, usually from a parent.

  • Is there a risk to clinically extremely vulnerable pupils or parents?

As the shielding programme for children and adults was paused on August 1, guidance says that pupils in this group can return to school, as can those who have family members who are shielding.

But, if a local area sees a spike of Covid-19, children or family members who live there will be advised to shield while rates remain high, and so may be temporarily absent from school.

  • What measures are schools putting in place?

The government has set out a series of measures that all schools must follow, including good respiratory hygiene and enhanced cleaning procedures, such as hand sanitiser stations in classrooms.

More regular hand-washing is advised and staff should ensure that children do so when they arrive at school, return from their break, change rooms and after eating.

Those who have symptoms of Covid-19, or are in a household with someone displaying symptoms, should be kept away from the school.

  • Are students and staff required to wear face coverings in school?

Based on the current evidence, guidance does not recommend the use of face coverings in schools because it says pupils and staff are mixing in consistent groups and misuse may inadvertently increase the risk of transmission.

  • How different will the school day look for pupils?

Staggering break and lunch times should be looked at and, ensuring that teaching time is maintained, schools should consider staggered start and finish times to keep groups apart as they arrive and leave school.

When timetabling lessons, schools should ensure that different groups, or “bubbles”, are kept apart and movement around the school should be kept to a minimum.

  • What are school “bubbles” and how will they work?

As a way of minimising contact between students, and so reducing transmission of the disease, guidance recommends keeping groups of children separate in “bubbles”.

Guidance suggests that in secondary schools the bubble is likely to be the size of a year group to enable staff to deliver the full range of curriculum subjects, while smaller group sizes may be implemented with younger children.

Groups should be kept apart where possible, and older pupils should be encouraged to keep their distance from other children and teachers within the same group.

Queen's Hill Primary School in Costessey near Norwich, prepares to reopen after the coronavirus shutdown. Credit: PA
  • But how will the groups be maintained?

A headteachers’ union has warned that it will be “enormously challenging” for schools to keep children apart in year-group-sized “bubbles”.

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), said: “The logistics of keeping apart many different ‘bubbles’ of children in a full school, including whole year groups comprising hundreds of pupils, is mind-boggling.”

  • What if someone becomes unwell at school?

If a pupil or a member of staff has symptoms of the virus, they should stay at home and arrange a test. In the case of a positive test, everyone within the school that had been in close contact with the pupil or staff member will be asked to self-isolate.

A school will be said to have an outbreak if there are two or more confirmed cases within 14 days or an overall rise in absence where Covid-19 is suspected.

How have schools in Northern Ireland become Covid-secure?

  • How will an outbreak be contained?

In some cases, health protection teams may recommend that a large number of pupils self-isolate at home as a precautionary measure, such as a whole year group.

The official guidance says mobile units can be dispatched to schools to test anyone who has been in contact with the child, or member of staff, who has tested positive.

Testing will focus on the person’s class, followed by their year group, then the whole school if necessary, it adds.