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The news of Leicester schools closing as the city re-enters lockdown has left many parents across England scratching their heads as to whether it’s safe for their own kids to be back at school where they live.
Health secretary Matt Hancock said because “children have been particularly impacted by this outbreak”, schools in the city are closing for the majority of pupils, with only vulnerable students and the children of key workers able to attend.
As it stands, only limited groups of school pupils have been allowed back into classrooms across England since the start of June – with reception, Year 1 and Year 6 given priority at primary level, and Year 10 and 12 at secondary. Should parents with kids in these year groups be worried about them being back?
What we know about Covid-19 and children
Health experts around the world are in broad consensus that children have a much milder experience of the virus than adults when infected with Covid-19 – and only a very small number of children do go on to become seriously ill.
There have been concerns raised about a Kawasaki-type disease related to Covid-19 – however cases of these are still considered extremely rare.
Studies have shown that 1-5% of diagnosed Covid-19 cases occur in children. Cases tend largely to be asymptomatic, ie. where they don’t show symptoms.
Research during the pandemic has suggested children are far less likely to spread the virus around – and become infected with the virus – than adults – this was also true of an earlier coronavirus, the 2003 SARS epidemic.
More recently, a study from Singapore found the risk of Covid-19 transmission among children in schools, especially pre-schools, is likely to be low.
So kids aren’t ‘super spreaders’ then?
Another study from Professor Jonas Ludvigsson, a paediatrician and expert in clinical epidemiology at Sweden’s Karolinska Institute, concluded: “Children are unlikely to be the main drivers of the pandemic. Opening up schools and kindergartens is unlikely to impact Covid‐19 mortality rates in older people.”
Based on the evidence, Alasdair Munro and Saul Faust of the University of Southampton, wrote in the BMJ Journals’ Archive of Diseases in Childhood: “Children are not COVID-19 super spreaders: time to go back to school.”
However, Independent Sage – a group of experts that formed in response to the secrecy surrounding the official Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) – cautioned ahead of schools reopening that placing many children in one place could lead schools to becoming “institutional amplifiers” if asymptomatic children go unnoticed until an adult becomes symptomatic.
How safe are schools to be open?
The government is currently studying the prevalence of Covid-19 among pre-school, primary and secondary school pupils and teachers in England by swab testing them. Data is being collected from up to 100 schools across England, including 15 schools in London, with results available later in the summer.
Public Health England (PHE) said in a new report on the Leicester outbreak that it cannot “provide any analytical link” between the return to schools and the rise in new infections in the area. That said, the report continued: “It would seem sensible to investigate this association to exclude any evidence of the recent rise in observed case numbers of being linked to a return of larger numbers of children to school.”
The question of whether a school is “safe” for children to attend isn’t simple to answer, as it depends on many factors including where you live, who makes up your household, how many children are attending the school and what precautions are in place – at home, in the classroom and between the two.
Professor Mark Mon-Williams, director of the Centre for Applied Education Research in Bradford, tells HuffPost UK: “Many children involved in our research live in large multi-generational households. Clearly, the risks to such a household of a child returning from school with the virus are much greater than the risks to a ‘nuclear family’ [two parents and their children].
“Likewise, we know that many families in our most deprived areas contain individuals with poor physical health. Once more, the consequences of a child returning from school with the virus are more worrisome than a child returning to an affluent – and healthy – household.”
The impact of kids not going to school
While children have been largely spared from the clinical effects of Covid-19, the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health (RCPCH) recently pointed out that almost every child in the country has experienced “collateral damage”.
“Millions have faced an unprecedented interruption in their education, and the burden of this has weighed most heavily on disadvantaged families and communities,” said RCPCH.
The mental impact of the pandemic cannot be ignored. Professor Mon-Williams is involved in a body of research following the lives of 13,500 children as they grow up, which means they have insights into how children were before Covid-19 hit – as well as during the pandemic.
“We are documenting children’s social-emotional wellbeing. We can compare the 15 weeks under lockdown with the same period of time last year and we’re seeing a horrendous increase in suicidal thoughts, depression and anxiety,” he says.
It’s understandable why some families are anxious about sending their children back to school, he adds, “but if the school is saying that it is safe to return, then families should know that they can trust that the appropriate risk calculations and risk mitigation has occurred”. He concludes: “I think the critical point to make is that if schools say it is safe, then trust them.”