Children going back to school: what the latest scientific research says

With Reception, Year 1 and Year 6 due back in English schools on June 1, what are scientists and new studies saying about the safety of going back to school

Schoolgirl going to school in summer uniform

The government has said English primary schools will be re-opening on June 1, for pupils in Reception, Year 1 and Year 6. It says the scientific advice is clear that children going back to school is safe – providing some social-distancing rules are put in place. But where as this scientific advice come from? And what exactly does it say?

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What does the latest science say about the safety of children returning to school?

We don’t yet know specifically what scientific research about children, schools and coronavirus is being considered by SAGE, the government’s scientific advisory group.

But we do know that the World Health Organisation has said that children are not only at low risk of getting seriously ill from Covid-19, they also seem to be less likely to spread the virus.

Dr Soumya Swaminathan, Chief Scientist at the the World Health Organisation (WHO), has told the BBC that it seems children are less capable of spreading coronavirus than adults, and that they are at very low risk of getting ill from the disease, too. She goes on to say:

What we have seen from countries where schools have remained open is that there have not been big outbreaks in schools
Dr Soumya Swaminathan, WHO Chief Scientist

And a new study from Australia – the 1st direct study of the spread of Covid-19 in schools – appears to confirm this. According to reports in The Telegraph and the Times Educational Supplement, scientists at Australia’s National Centre for Immunisation Research and Surveillance have looked at 15 schools (secondary and primary) in New South Wales, where schools have been kept open. They found 9 teachers and 9 pupils in these schools were infected with coronavirus.

735 pupils and 128 staff came into close contact with these 18 virus carriers. Only 1 secondary-school pupil caught it (from another pupil) and 1 primary-school pupil caught it (from a teacher)
National Centre for Immunisation Research and Surveillance, Australia

The researchers conclude that “the spread of Covid-19 within schools has been very limited” and seems to be “considerably less than that seen for other respiratory viruses, such as influenza”.

This research is, it has to be said, preliminary and has not yet been subjected to peer review.

So, do all scientists agree about this?

We’re afraid not. While it is widely accepted that children do tend to get much milder symptoms than adults, some virologists don’t believe there is yet enough evidence about children spreading the disease less for anything to be conclusive.

“Unfortunately, I don’t think we are any clearer on the role that children play in the community transmission of the virus – not enough of those studies have been done,” Jonathan Ball, professor of molecular virology at the University of Nottingham told the Times Educational Supplement in an article last week.

And it’s clear that, in the apparent absence of scientific agreement, many teachers, local politicians and parents are worried that sending children back to school may not be safe – for children, for teachers and for the families they live with.

So how can I be sure it’s completely safe for my child to go back to school?

To be honest, right now, you can’t. The signs from EU countries where schools have already re-opened look reassuring: Blaženka Divjak, the minister for education in Croatia, told other EU education ministers on May 18 that “so far, we haven’t heard anything negative about the reopening of schools”. But she also said it’s probably to early to draw solid conclusions.

“There is nothing any government can do right now to make it 100% guaranteed to be safe from a Covid-19 point of view,” says Dr Philippa Kaye, MadeForMums’ expert GP, speaking on ITV’s This Morning.

And, of course, you don’t have to send your child back to school if you don’t want to.

The Department of Education has made it clear that “children and young people in eligible year groups are strongly encouraged to attend school (where there are no shielding concerns for the child or their household)” but “parents will not be fined for non-attendance at this time”.

As for Dr Philippa, herself a mum of 3, she says she is swayed by the argument that children don’t seem to be as infectious as adults, by the very low number of children’s deaths from Covid-19 – and also by what she sees as the significant detrimental impact of staying at home on children’s physical and mental health.

I have 3 children, including 1 who is in Reception, and they will all be going back when schools open
Dr Philippa Kaye, expert GP

Pic: Getty images

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