Schools do not play a significant role in driving the spread of Covid-19 in the community, a new study suggests.
Research found that cases among teachers fell during the November lockdown when schools in England remained open, indicating there was so significant evidence to suggest that children attending class is a major driver of outbreaks in the community.
The findings come as the Public Health Agency in Northern Ireland said the risk of Covid-19 transmission is greater at the school gates than in the classroom.
Boris Johnson said on Monday (15 February) that no decisions have yet been made on whether all pupils in England can return to school at the same time.
Risk much lower in primary schools
The study examined data on school absences in England from September to December 2020 as a result of Covid-19 infection, as well as how absences varied as other measures were introduced.
The researchers, made up of epidemiologists at the University of Warwick, found that data from December 2020 indicated a large rise in the number of absences due to confirmed Covid-19 infection in secondary schools in the South East and London.
However, such rises were not seen in other regions or in primary schools in England.
Dr Edward Hill, from the University of Warwick, said: “During the first two weeks of the November lockdown we observed an increase in pupil absence as a result of infection with Covid-19, yet in the following weeks the data indicates that in several regions there was no subsequent rise in Covid-19-caused teacher absence.
“It is important to note that our findings only refer to cases reported in school children and teachers, and do not provide an indication as to whether these individuals were infected within the school environment.”
The study, which is not yet peer-reviewed, found that cases in secondary school pupils increased for the first two weeks of the November lockdown in many regions before decreasing.
Dr Mike Tildesley, from the University of Warwick and author of the paper, explained: “Our analysis of recorded school absences as a result of infection with Covid-19 suggest that the risk is much lower in primary than secondary schools and we do not find evidence to suggest that school attendance is a significant driver of outbreaks in the community.”
Transmission higher at school gates
Days ahead of a Stormont Executive discussion on the reopening of schools in Northern Ireland, Dr Joanne McClean of the Public Health Organisation, said that schools are “not a major source of transmission”.
Speaking to the BBC’s Stephen Nolan Show, Dr McClean said the evidence shows that in schools the risk to staff is not zero, but no higher than to other members of the workforce.
She said: “Schools are not the major source of transmission … the risk for the staff in the classroom is not higher than other workforces and part of that is due to the excellent measures that schools have put in place.”
Dr McClean noted that while the classroom can be controlled, mixing outside at the school gate cannot be.
She added that school pupils and staff “cannot be magicked” into school classrooms, stating: “There are two bits to this, there’s the bit that goes on in the classroom that schools can control … and then there is the bit that goes on outside the gates.
“You just need to look at a school … a child goes to school, all the measures are in place but the minute they come out that door, there is mixing and parents mixing.”