Great Britain

Covid, schools and children - what are the risks? And everything you need to know

THE number of children of key workers in schools in England during the third Covid lockdown has dropped in the past week, new Government data shows, but what are the risks around children, schools and the virus?

Approximately 813,000 children of critical workers went to school on January 21, down from 820,000 on January 13. This represents 71 per cent of all pupils in attendance at school last week.

But the overall proportion of pupils in class (14 per cent) remains the same as the week before, according to figures from the Department for Education.

More than a fifth (21 per cent) of primary school pupils were on-site last week, while 5 per cent of secondary school students were in class – the same as on January 13.

The percentage of pupils with an education, health and care plan (EHCP), or with a social worker, in class has risen slightly on the week before.

It comes as vaccine minister Nadhim Zahawi said studies about infection rates at primary schools had been “encouraging”.

The minister told BBC Breakfast: “The Prime Minister has made it a priority that schools are the first thing to come back.

“We’ve seen some encouraging data from Public Health England, and the Prime Minister reviews the data all the time, around primary schools.

“The infection rates are much lower among primary school children than secondary – I think it is five times higher in secondary schools.

“I think once we see the national infection rates continue to drop – we still have 37,000 people in hospital with Covid, but once we get to a place where schools can be safely reopened, it will be the first thing we do.”

But with Prime Minister Boris Johnson facing mounting pressure to reopen England’s schools before Easter, here is everything you need to know about schools, children and coronavirus. 

Are teachers and school staff at risk?

Covid-19 death rates among educational professionals were not “statistically significantly different” to those in the general population, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) has found.

The rate for male teachers and educational professionals in England and Wales in 2020 was 18.4 deaths per 100,000, compared with 31.4 for all males aged 20 to 64; while for women it was 9.8 compared with 16.8.

For individual teaching occupations, the ONS said it was only possible to calculate a reliable rate for secondary education teaching professionals, with 39.2 deaths per 100,000 males and 21.2 per 100,000 females.

Among secondary school teachers, Covid-19 death rates were 39.2 deaths per 100,000 males, compared with 31.4 for all males aged 20 to 64, and 21.2 per 100,000 females, compared with 16.8.

Is it safe for children to be in school?

Children are less likely to get seriously ill if they contract coronavirus, research has shown.

Researchers in the study stressed the absolute risk to children being admitted to hospital is “tiny” and the risk of needing critical care is “even tinier”.

Meanwhile, experts are concerned about the impact of lengthy school closures on the wellbeing of children and young people.

Professor Russell Viner, president of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, told MPs last week that children have experienced “considerable mental health harms” amid the pandemic, and he said anecdotally paediatricians are saying there is “more pressure on eating disorder services”

Is there more transmission in schools?

England’s deputy chief medical officer Jenny Harries told the education select committee that pupils can transmit coronavirus in schools, but she said it is “not a significant driver” of large-scale community infections.

In December, a leading Public Health England (PHE) expert said school outbreaks may be due to the virus being taken into each school several times rather than transmission between pupils.

Early findings from the small study looking at coronavirus in schools suggested that the proportion of schoolchildren and teachers with coronavirus mirrors the proportion in the local community.

Dr Shamez Ladhani, a PHE consultant epidemiologist and chief investigator on the study, said it was unclear how many of the infections were occurring in school, outside, or at home.

How do schools impact the virus spread in the wider population?

During a meeting between Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) members and ministers on December 22, experts said schools needed to be closed to lower transmission.

Sage said even a full lockdown similar to the one in spring would be unlikely to get the reproductive number – or R value – below 1.

“R would be lower with schools closed, with closure of secondary schools likely to have a greater effect than closure of primary schools,” the minutes from the Sage meeting said.

Is there more transmission in schools?

England’s deputy chief medical officer Jenny Harries told the education select committee that pupils can transmit coronavirus in schools, but she said it is “not a significant driver” of large-scale community infections.

In December, a leading Public Health England (PHE) expert said school outbreaks may be due to the virus being taken into each school several times rather than transmission between pupils.

Early findings from the small study looking at coronavirus in schools suggested that the proportion of schoolchildren and teachers with coronavirus mirrors the proportion in the local community.

Dr Shamez Ladhani, a PHE consultant epidemiologist and chief investigator on the study, said it was unclear how many of the infections were occurring in school, outside, or at home.

How do schools impact the virus spread in the wider population?

During a meeting between Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) members and ministers on December 22, experts said schools needed to be closed to lower transmission.

Sage said even a full lockdown similar to the one in spring would be unlikely to get the reproductive number – or R value – below 1.

“R would be lower with schools closed, with closure of secondary schools likely to have a greater effect than closure of primary schools,” the minutes from the Sage meeting say.

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