The best way to keep schools open? Stop coronavirus entering them in the first place | Schools

The world is in the middle of a global educational emergency. One billion children are out of school because of the Covid-19 crisis; of those, roughly 400 million have lost access to free school meals. Many young people are behind on learning and have lost the structure of a routine. For those living in abusive households, school was a safe space where they could access supportive adults. As countries learn to live with the reality of coronavirus, reopening schools is one of the largest challenges they face.

In the UK, the hardest part of this isn’t opening schools, but ensuring they stay open in the foreseeable future. As the experiences of Israel and several states in the US have shown, if cases jump quickly and community transmission is high, it becomes difficult to keep schools open. Continual outbreaks and cases of Covid-19 within schools can also dent the confidence of parents and teachers, and spur a move towards online learning: in the US, for example, only one in seven parents says their children are returning to school full-time.

Teachers are one of the most important components in getting schools back open. Trying to guilt trip or berate them is both unhelpful and unfair. By and large, teachers go into education because they care about children and young people; just as parents do, they want their safety and wellbeing to be taken seriously. So listening to what teachers have to say is vital. In Scotland, where schools have now been open for nearly two weeks, the government offers priority, on-demand testing for teachers, nursery and other school staff who think they have been exposed to the virus, while 2-metre distancing measures are in place between teaching staff, and between teachers and students.

To prevent Covid-19 from spreading in schools, it’s vital to stop the transmission of the virus in the community. In Scotland, the government is committed to a strategy of maximum suppression, and has continued to encourage people to work from home in order to keep schools open in the coming weeks. Schools are integral to local communities, so the prevalence of Covid-19 in a community will also be reflected in its schools. Indeed, a recent Public Health England report examining outbreaks of coronavirus at English schools in June found a strong correlation between the number of school outbreaks and the regional incidence of Covid-19. Breaking chains of transmission after cases emerge in schools will require a robust testing and tracing system that is integrated with the community.

To help stem the spread of Covid-19, schools themselves can adopt mitigation measures such as frequent handwashing, outdoor learning, ventilating classrooms, staggering start and end times and avoiding the mixing of different age groups and classes. Parents should be kept largely off-site, and teachers should be cautious around one another; recent research from Public Health England suggests that two thirds of viral transmission in schools occurs between teachers, or from teachers to pupils. Although face coverings have educational costs for younger children, WHO guidance advises the use of them for those aged over 12 – so it would make sense to adopt them in secondary schools where transmission is occurring.

But some of these measures can create problems of their own. If maintaining 2-metre distancing were mandatory for all secondary school pupils, for example, those at private schools (which tend to have more space and resources) could likely return full time while state school pupils, particularly in deprived areas, would probably only get one or two days per week of in-person schooling. Blended learning that mixes in-person and online teaching could be an option where physical distancing isn’t possible – but encouraging a move towards online learning will amplify educational inequalities, particularly if pupils don’t all have access to laptops, iPads and internet connections.

Schools reflect how we are all tied together as communities. What one person or family does can affect a whole group of people. If children who are returning from countries where they have been exposed to the virus go straight back to school, their entire class might also be required to isolate for 14 days. This is why rapid response plans are an important part of keeping schools open; should a pupil or teacher test positive, schools should know how to act so that contacts can be quickly identified, tested and quarantined.

Of all the strategies for reopening schools and keeping them open, a zero Covid approach aimed at maximum suppression of the virus is the best one. Schools operate within communities: the safest way to protect them is to make sure the virus never gets into schools in the first place.

• Prof Devi Sridhar is chair of global public health at the University of Edinburgh

Source: The Guardian

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