There were ‘very few’ coronavirus outbreaks in schools and nurseries that re-opened during the summer term, Government research has found.
Only 55 clusters of Covid were recorded in educational settings across England in the seven weeks to July 17, when No10 began the phased reopening of schools.
Researchers led by a team at Public Health England credited strict infection control measures over the summer when the disease was only circulating at the low rates, saying smaller classes with better social distancing would inevitably have helped to thwart the virus.
But they admitted the nationwide reopening of schools to all children in September — which officials believe helped fuel Britain’s second wave — would have inevitably led to more outbreaks because it was not as easy to keep youngsters apart in fully-opened facilities.
The graph above shows the number of Covid-19 cases identified in schools at the end of each week to July 27. There were only 55 outbreaks identified – which is when two or more cases are found at the same school within 14 days of each other
Teaching unions repeatedly tried to derail plans to let youngsters back into classes in the summer, saying it would put staff and students at too great a risk of catching the virus.
But parents hit back and accused the unions of trying to sabotage the education of children, with millions of school pupils forced to stay at home.
Less than a fifth of schoolchildren — roughly 1.6million — returned to the classroom in June, after Britain’s first coronavirus lockdown.
In the study published in The Lancet Infectious Diseases journal, experts monitored 38,000 nurseries, 15,600 primary schools and 4,000 secondary schools for Covid-19 outbreaks between June 1 and July 17.
An outbreak was defined as when two or more linked cases of the coronavirus were diagnosed within 14 days at the same school or nursery.
Of the 55 outbreaks uncovered, almost half (27) occurred in primary schools, seven in secondary schools, 16 in nurseries, and five in schools of mixed age groups.
The most outbreaks were recorded in Yorkshire and the Humber, at 15, followed by the West Midlands, at 10, and the North West, at seven.
Experts also claimed in their study that controlling transmission of Covid ‘outside the school gates’ would ‘protect’ educational settings.
The risk of an outbreak ratchets up every 72 per cent for every increase of five cases per 100,000 people in the community, results showed.
When the study was first carried out the infection rate in many authorities was below 10 cases per 100,000 people each week. Many local areas are now, however, nearing 100 cases per 100,000 people every week or have crossed the threshold.
Yorkshire and the Humber suffered the highest number of Covid-19 outbreaks in its schools and nurseries in June. A co-primary case is when two or more cases of Covid-19 are confirmed within 48 hours
The study also suggested that teachers were more likely to catch and spread Covid-19, although the scientists said this was probably because they were more likely to develop symptoms and get a test for the virus.
GCSES AND A-LEVELS TO BE SET REGIONALLY BECAUSE OF COVID-19 DISRUPTION
A Labour chief has called for GCSE and A-level grades to be set regionally this summer because of different levels of coronavirus disruption across the country.
Shadow education secretary Kate Green says students in badly hit regions should get ‘special consideration’ – like exam students with long-term illnesses currently receive.
Her calls come as millions of students across the country missed months of in school-teaching during the first national Covid lockdown earlier this year.
And while schools across England were reopened to all children in June, low attendance and Covid outbreaks, particularly in high-risk areas such as Liverpool and Manchester, have continued to cause disruption.
In an interview with Tes, formerly known as the Times Educational Supplement, the Labour shadow minister said: ‘We do need to recognise regional variants in the learning experience that students have had this year – for example, in parts of the North West, we have seen very low attendance rates in schools.
In the outbreaks, members of staff accounted for 73 per cent of cases.
In 26 of the outbreaks the probable direction of transmission was teacher-to-teacher, in eight it was teacher-to-student, and in 16 it was student-to-teacher.
The virus was only recorded as spreading from student-to-student in five outbreaks. But this could have also been due to less tests being carried out in children, who often escape suffering any symptoms.
Dr Shamez Ladhani, one of the researchers from Public Health England, said: ‘Covid infections and outbreaks were uncommon in educational settings after they reopened during the summer term.
‘The strong correlation with rates in the wider community also emphasises the importance of controlling transmission outside the school gates to protect educational settings.
‘This is consistent with studies that have been conducted since this paper was completed in August, and forthcoming PHE research into transmission in schools during the autumn term.’
Dr Sharif Ismail, from the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine and who was also involved in the work, said: ‘While staff did have higher infection rates, it’s important to note that the overall number of cases was very small and the vast majority of staff were completely fine and able to protect themselves and their students.
‘Teachers were very cautious with physical distancing and infection control practices when they were in class with their students, but this was more difficult to maintain outside the classroom.
‘Teachers are also more likely to develop symptoms than students and are, therefore, more easily identified, which almost certainly contributed to their higher infection rate.’
Writing in a linked comment, Stefan Flasche and John Edwards, who were not involved in the study and are from the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, said the partial re-opening of schools during the UK in summer half-term, when Covid-19 levels were low, was reassuringly associated with very few confirmed outbreaks in schools.
But they added: ‘The partial opening of schools in June and July with small bubbles and much fewer children attending, particularly in secondary education, may have led to considerably less within-school transmission than the reopening of schools to all children after the summer.’