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Is it safe to reopen schools? Half of parents are so scared they won't send their children back, but keeping them at home is risky too

Happiest days of their lives Photo by JOHN THYS/AFP via Getty Images

Happiest days of their lives Photo by JOHN THYS/AFP via Getty Images


May 19, 2020   8 mins

First, I should declare my interest. I want my kids to go back to school. The younger one is OK: she’s four, and happy with her own company. She’s unilaterally decided to reject the staid pre-lockdown convention that people ought to wear pants; but apart from that, she’s much as she ever was, and can play happily with her Sylvanians for hours without adult intervention. But the six-year-old misses his friends; he misses running around. His parents are just not as good at, or interested in, prolonged games of tag as are other six-year-olds. He’s climbing the walls a bit and needs constant attention. It’s hard on him and it’s hard on us.

These are very minor problems, obviously, compared to tens of thousands of dead from a frightening disease. But in the Chivers household they’re very salient, and it would be dishonest of me to pretend they’re not a factor.

So. I wanted to look at the elements that go into a decision to reopen (or not reopen) schools; what the evidence says; and what the trade-offs involved are.

First: there’s been a lot of attention lately on a strange syndrome that appears to be associated with Covid-19 in children. It’s an autoimmune condition, similar to a condition known as Kawasaki syndrome; the body’s defences overreact and cause severe inflammation, especially of the coronary arteries. It was first spotted in Bergamo, Italy, and Prof Liz Whittaker of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health (RCPCH) told a briefing that Bergamo would normally expect to see about five cases of Kawasaki syndrome in a year, while they saw 10 of this similar condition “in five or six weeks”. Since then, about 75 or 100 have been seen in the UK.

It’s got a lot of press attention and Matt Hancock, the health secretary, has said he is “worried” about it. But — without wanting to minimise the seriousness of it — it is very rare. Whittaker’s colleague Prof Russell Viner told the same briefing that even including the Kawasaki-like cases, children are at extremely low risk. “The deaths tell us all we need to know,” he said. “You can count [children’s deaths from Covid-19] on two hands, out of [a total of] around 30,000.” There have also, he says, been fewer than 500 hospital admissions for under-18s in the UK, compared to hundreds of thousands for adults.

That doesn’t make the deaths that did happen any less awful, but it does mean that each child is not at significantly greater risk than they are going to school anyway, from accidents or other illnesses. As Viner said elsewhere, about 160 or 170 children die in car crashes each year: “Those deaths are tragic but also rare. How do we manage those?  We take steps to prevent these deaths. We buy child seats, we use seat belts, we sometimes buy better cars. But we don’t stop driving. This syndrome is much, much more rare than car accidents involving children.”

Every paediatric specialist and epidemiologist I’m aware of says that the risk to children is minuscule. But, obviously, that’s not the only factor involved. We want to know the risk of children spreading the disease; and, equally importantly, we want to know the costs of children not going back to school.

I’m not going to pretend to be able to give you a definitive answer. But I’m going to go through the factors to give you a sense of why it’s so complicated.

First: we need to know whether kids have the disease in great numbers. Dr Sanjay Patel, a paediatric infectious disease specialist at the University of Southampton, pointed me to a study that came out in Spain last week, which tested 60,000 people for Covid-19 antibodies. Distressingly it found that only 5% of Spaniards had had the disease — suggesting that, if those numbers are accurate, despite Spain’s awful outbreak, they are still nowhere near herd immunity. 

More hearteningly, though, it found that only about 1% of babies, 2% of one-to-four-year-olds, and 3% of five-to-nine-year-olds had it. Earlier studies in Iceland and Italy found almost no children infected at all. 

The economist Emily Oster, who like me is very interested in all of this because she wants to send her kids to camp, also points to an interesting study which found that in the Netherlands, 6.5% of people who turned up at their GP with flu-like symptoms tested positive for Covid-19 — except for young people. The under-20s actually did have the flu.

That said, the Office for National Statistics released some data recently, looking at live virus rather than antibodies, which found children were no less likely to have the disease than adults. Other work finds that children have viral loads comparable to that of adults. 

So children may have the disease less than adults, or they may not. It’s not clear. If they do, it’s probably only somewhat less — half as much, or so — not orders of magnitude less.

But that’s still not the only question. The next question is — if children do get infected, how likely are they to pass it on?

There are reasons to be hopeful. An un-peer-reviewed paper in Australia, released on Monday, found very little transmission from children in schools. And there’s been some attention on some more Icelandic research which I am extremely keen to believe: a company running the testing and tracing in that country has so far failed to find a single example of a child passing on the disease.

Patel thinks the situation is unlikely to be that extreme — “it’s not that children cannot be infectious; that just doesn’t make sense and isn’t likely to be true”. But there are, he thinks, good observational reasons to think that children are less likely to spread it.

First, he points out that there haven’t been any outbreaks in schools and nurseries among the children of key workers, or in countries such as Iceland where the schools stayed open. In Denmark, the spread of the disease accelerated briefly after schools were reopened, but quickly fell back to where it had been. Patel points out that all these schools have maintained social distancing, which may have kept the disease from spreading, but “you can’t expect totally robust social distancing in nurseries and primary schools”.

And besides, to some extent, if it’s working, it doesn’t really matter whether it’s the social distancing or something innate to children that’s stopping the disease from spreading — although if it’s the latter, it may mean we can end social distancing in schools a bit sooner, which is good because those pics of children playing two metres away from each other break my heart.

So, we don’t really know whether kids get the disease at the same level as adults, and we don’t really know if they pass it on as readily, although there are encouraging hints on both fronts. Dr Aubrey Cunnington, a paediatric infectious disease specialist at Imperial College London, is extremely cautious: “The bottom line is we really just don’t know whether children are going to spread this virus to each other, and to their families and the community, once we reopen schools.” 

But that’s still only half of the story. The other half is — what are the costs to keeping children out of school? If there were none then it would be simple: just keep them at home. Obviously, it’s not simple.

There are economic costs — there are nearly nine million children in UK schools, meaning that millions of parents will have to take time off work to look after them. And those economic costs are real and damaging to people’s lives. But they’ve been addressed elsewhere, so let’s look at the direct costs to the children.

Sam Freedman, CEO of the education nonprofit Education Partnerships Group and former executive director of Teach First, breaks down the impacts for children in three ways. They are: direct educational cost; impacts on socialisation; and risk of abuse at home. “People who are on the ‘keep everyone safe until September’ side of things are underestimating the negative impact on kids,” he says.

If children don’t go back until the start of the new academic year in September, they’ll have missed around 22 weeks of school since March. “People tend to think it’s only a few more weeks, it’s how much difference can it make, but what I’m worried about is the loss of learning over that period,” Freedman says. You can detect “learning loss” — kids forgetting what they’ve been taught — over the six-week summer break, so a near half-year gap would be presumably much worse. And, as with so many things, it will be unequal — “some kids will be fully homes schooled and having a great education, for most it’ll be worse than being at school, and for some it’ll be nothing”.

For younger children, like mine, the actual stuff you’re learning in school might not seem so important — they can colour in pictures of Pokémon just as happily at home. But the socialisation side is even more paramount. “It’s so important at that age,” says Freedman. “My daughter is four; if she doesn’t go back to school until September, she’ll have gone 15% of her life without seeing a child her own age.” Cunnington agrees: “socialisation at that age is key, and you can’t do it with your parents.”

And of course there’s the abuse factor. I don’t know how common it is, but, Freedman warns, “it’s probably a lot more prevalent than most of the middle-class people arguing on Twitter realise”. 

So, getting children back to school is important. But at the moment, the plan is to start with three school years — Reception (age four to five), Year One (five to six) and Year Six (age 10 to 11) — from 1 June. Then the impact will be assessed, and assuming no major change in the spread of the disease, other years will be brought back.

But by then it’ll be only four or five weeks until the summer holiday. And presumably children won’t be going back full time — one school I’m aware of is planning half the children in Monday and Tuesday, a deep clean on Wednesday, and the other half in Thursday or Friday. Something like that will have to be implemented everywhere to allow social distancing. “Half a day for four weeks is not a lot in the scheme of things,” says Freedman.

Other countries such as Italy, which have summer holidays from June, have simply said they will restart after the summer break, and Freedman wonders why the government isn’t bringing forward our summer holiday; it’s not as if anyone has any foreign holidays booked. But perhaps there are good logistical reasons for it, and it would be better than nothing — there may be some repetition of what’s already been taught this year that can reduce learning loss; it would be good for socialisation; it would give parents and kids some time apart and thus hopefully reduce abuse.

Cunnington adds that some contact with teachers means that those teachers can provide children work for the rest of the week, and also that from a safeguarding point of view even contact just once or twice a week would be a useful way of checking up on at-risk children: literally just asking them if everything is OK at home, or in other ways seeing if they’re not doing well, could be very useful.

The main thing, though, is that none of this is once-and-for-all. Freedman is watching other countries with interest — not just Denmark and Norway and Iceland, where the outbreaks were so limited that they do not make a good comparison, but other hard-hit states like Belgium, the Netherlands and France. “Our debate is very parochial,” he says. “Every country is having this debate. Watching the impact is what I’m interested in. If we get to the end of May, and France or Holland seem to be seeing a significant increase in infection rate, that’s a strong argument for us being cautious. If they aren’t, then it isn’t.”

Patel, likewise, says that we can be cautious — “it’s not just once we’ve made the decision we can’t go back. It’s doing it tentatively, with clear testing, tracing, and isolation in place”. He appeals to a sense of collectivism – parents are understandably worried about the risks to their children, he says, but the harm to other children by keeping them off school could be even greater.

“We have to be entirely honest with the public, that we don’t have the answers yet but doing nothing is not an option,” he says. “There is a very small risk for the child, grandparents can’t do drop-off, parents can’t aggregate at school gates: it’s not a green light to do anything, but if we do it sensibly then we can get our country back to some new sense of normality, and reduce the harm from the educational and wellbeing health perspective.”

As I said at the top, I’m keen to see my children back at school, for selfish reasons, for work reasons, and for their sake. I entirely understand those — I know several — who go the other way: the IFS recently found that 50% of parents wouldn’t send their children in, even if schools reopened.

But if it’s done carefully, and with acknowledgement of the huge uncertainties and a close eye on the experiences of other countries, it could be done safely, and could reduce the real damage that gets done. I hope we manage it. I want my kids back at school.

 


Tom Chivers is a science writer. His second book, How to Read Numbers, is out now.

TomChivers

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mikael.wiberg
mikael.wiberg
4 years ago

Why not look at the only country that never closed the schools?
The children in Sweden are doing fine and the teachers are not more sick than the average workforce.

Jean Redpath
Jean Redpath
4 years ago
Reply to  mikael.wiberg

If you are referring to Sweden, only schools for those up to age 16 were kept open. Nevertheless, for people under 20, it appears so far only 1 virus death in Sweden. Fewer than 180 deaths for those under 60, so far.

John Church
John Church
4 years ago
Reply to  Jean Redpath

Likewise, in the UK there has been 1 death linked to Covid in the age group 5-14, which fully covers Primary school. Just 1, out of 35,000.

And half the country is afraid to send their children back to school, because it is too risky. How is it possible that so many people are unable to think rationally about this ? What have we done ?

Robin Bury
Robin Bury
4 years ago
Reply to  John Church

Super answer. Her in Canada the same stupidity prevails esp in Ontario…children are not dying of covid and are not spreading it. The reaction is emotional and ignorant.

Steve Dean
Steve Dean
4 years ago
Reply to  Jean Redpath

I think we agree that the younger you are, the less you are affected by covid-19. I think where there is contradictory science, is, how ‘good’ children are at passing it on. Remember, govt says social distancing impossible in primary schools.

Mark Corby
Mark Corby
4 years ago
Reply to  Jean Redpath

Q.E.D!

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
4 years ago

Of course it’s safe. More to the point, it was never ‘unsafe’. On the plus side, the sickening attitude of the (state) teachers and their unions is laid bare once again for all to see. Happy to stay home on full pay while private school pupils continue to be educated and get ahead. As we have known forever, they have no integrity whatsoever.

Steve Dean
Steve Dean
4 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

Useful analysis. Surely Mr Chivers deserves better?

Brett M
Brett M
4 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

Hmm. A comment seemingly lifted from the front page of the Daily Mail. I’m not a teacher, I know lots of teachers. The two who live opposite have been at school every day since the schools “closed”, they were in all of the Easter holidays. They are at a state school. The local public school has been closed, not taking “key worker” children.

Saphié Ashtiany
Saphié Ashtiany
4 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

I am sorry to be a bit ad hominem in my reply but you really dont seem to know that of which you speak – though maybe you are just feeling a bit grumpy. Schools have been open throughout with teachers rostered to go in and look after children of other key workers including in some cases toddlers in nappies. The same teachers are also setting and marking work, keeping on touch with school students and their parents, buying food for many whose vouchers aren’t working, trying to figure out how to minimise risk. Oh and also dying.

Michael Dawson
Michael Dawson
4 years ago

Before the lockdown began, I remember telling a friend who has a 7 year old child that it was mad that schools had not been closed already. I think that was a fair call at the time, applying a precautionary approach. But there is now a lot of evidence that the risks involved for children and teachers are very small and I think Tom has not gone far enough in stressing this evidence.

Unfortunately, the government’s published stats on virus inflections are so high level as to be useless for any real analysis. But the authorities should be able to look at the occupations of people with the virus, whether they are parents of young children etc, and reach conclusions about the risks, in addition to looking at other countries and what has already happened there – not very much actually – after schools have reopened.

Tony Hay
Tony Hay
4 years ago

Sooooo … completely ignoring the “is it safe” question, and definitely ignoring the “state teachers are left-wing, unionised, lazy, good-for-nothing” garbage below … unless the government introduces some more practical guidelines for schools, it’s going to be a fiasco.

At a primary school I know well, the school gate opens directly onto the street. Parents may not be admitted onto school premises. Does this include playgrounds or just buildings – no guidelines – so this school will open part of the playground. Parents must physically distance themselves by 2m. So there’s likely to be a 270m queue (135 children across three year groups) stretching around the block. How long will it take to drop off the pupils one by one in the morning? At 15 second intervals it will take 30 minutes. You think that’s possible? Really? I reckon it will take up to 90 minutes. It will be even harder in the evening: “Jones the parent is here for Jones the pupil! Where’s little Jones? JONES!!” And so on.

During the day, the teachers of 4, 5, 6, 10 & 11 year olds (reception, year 1, year 6) are expected to physically distance themselves from pupils (go on, think about it). And the children themselves are expected to do the same in class, at play and at lunch. Pull the other one!

As a parent of a four year old and a six year old, you’re likely to be hanging around the school gate for a looooong time every day. Meanwhile, your little darlings will receive almost zero meaningful education. Having said that, the Swedes (and don’t we love them for their anti-lockdown sense of perspective) reckon that formal education pre-7 is a waste of time anyway.

Robin Bury
Robin Bury
4 years ago
Reply to  Tony Hay

There is no evidence that children spread covid

pete.nuttall
pete.nuttall
4 years ago

Is it safe to reopen schools? For whom? For children, almost certainly, plus it is less safe for them not to be at school. For parents, teachers and other adult family members of the household? “The bottom line is we really just don’t know” So the answer is “yes” for children or “don’t know” for the adults they are in contact with; many less well off children live with elderly and vulnerable relatives.

lewismoonie
lewismoonie
4 years ago

This is an excellent overview of the risks we face going forward. I have a slight qualm every time I see the phrase “Is it safe?” With an infection that is potentially fatal, “safety” is effectively unachievable. What we are aiming for is an acceptable level of risk as a society. That is where public discussion should focus, not on some spurious notion of “safety”

hari singh virk
hari singh virk
4 years ago

Who say’s private schools are happy to open up any sooner? They seem remarkably unenthusiastic on the matter of reopening too. At best they flog some limited online teaching yet expect parents to pay fees. So let’s not look at public schools for integrity on this one either.

Robin Bury
Robin Bury
4 years ago

One question seems unanswered. Children are not dying and in 22 European countries elementary schools are open and there has been no increase in spread of virus So why is Doug Ford in Ontario and his advisers NOT opening schools for young children? Because they are not paying attention to what is happening in Europe

David Bell
David Bell
4 years ago

Unfortunately the group that appears to be least interested in return to school is the teachers unions. They are currently doing a very good job of playing up safety concerns because the scientific advice can never be as solid as they demand.

I am willing to bet the teachers will be fighting about going back in September never mind June!

Michael McVeigh
Michael McVeigh
4 years ago

Tom has left out a further benefit of children in schools – this is where they pick up most of their immunity from all sorts of bugs & that immunity is part of their whole life. Some may die in a decade or two because their ‘natural’ immunity was not developed.

Simon Adams
Simon Adams
4 years ago

“ªThe article misses the main point that I don’t think anyone is questioning whether its safe for children. The question is whether its safe for teachers, teaching assistants etc who are older, pregnant, have diabetes etc. to be seperating fights, sneezed on, changing nappies etc”¬

Peter KE
Peter KE
4 years ago

Get a grip. The risk for children is much lower than the general population. As for teachers they need appropriate ppe but then if they do not want to work they can resign. Enough of the public sector not getting on with life.

sonya.vaccaro
sonya.vaccaro
4 years ago

I live and teach in Italy, luckily we have been able to teach throughout this period with all the joys and pitfalls it brings.

I have a slightly different take on this. The truth is no-one knows completely how the virus and the impact it has will be, it would appear that what is happening in one country is not happening in another so each country’s situation needs to be looked at with caution. So I am reluctant to give snap judgements and decisions.

I believe that getting the children back to school is important……waiting for September I believe for many children is going to cause extra anxiety because they have effectively not been in the usual routine for potential 6 months. So a return before the summer is good especially if they have to adapt to new measures. Where I disagree is on the need for more school work. I would say that the focus before the summer should be about socialising, debriefing over events and giving the students space to process away from their parents.

James Brennan
James Brennan
4 years ago

Schools seem epidemiologically a mirror image of care-homes, except that the inmates don’t spend all their time in them, so whatever they might transmitting is more widely spread. The reasons for re-opening them seem to be social and economic, more than educational, but (speaking as a former teacher) the folk making themselves heard on the educational case for re-opening are more likely than not to be teachers themselves. The current secretary of state isn’t a very good substitute. Everyone should be clear that this is a gamble (until we know more it can’t be anything else), but fixing the odds in the way now being used doesn’t reflect any rational risk assessment. Or even sensible educational management. The immense curricular problems now facing secondary pupils aren’t even being addressed.

Mark Smith
Mark Smith
4 years ago

The normal rubbish about the terrible unions. My wife is a reception and special needs teacher and works close to minimum wage.. She has been working throughout the pandemic and wants the best for all the children in her care. Calling the children every day and having classroom zoom meetings. Including chats with the parents. I would trust her, her colleges and the parents over the government. Is it safe for children to return, probably. (Although, it is impossible to socially distance reception children and special needs children, which is what schools are being asked to do). Is it safe for all the people the children will come into contact with afterwards. Probably not. Her school has taken the decision to allow year 6 to return, but not any staff or children with underlying conditions. So perhaps, it’s time the teacher bashing idiots stopped swallowing the MSM/Government narrative and visit a school instead to see what great work they are doing and the efforts they are going to, to educate children during this time.

Saphié Ashtiany
Saphié Ashtiany
4 years ago

I am so sad about this debate which really encapsulates so much of what is wrong we our approach to covid. Many teachers are working really hard going into school at least once a week to look after children of other key workers while setting and marking work for their classes, keeping some contact time via Zoom, WhatsApp and other technologies with both students and parents, making special efforts to engage and support the ones they’re not seeing so much of and planning for a mass return on whenever. They’ve been telling us about the pedagogical and epidemiological issues for weeks. Some of them have done huge amounts to support vulnerable kids, inc paying for their food. We know, have known for ever, what makes for widening inequalities. And we also know what helps spread a disease which is predictably awful for some. We now that children from BAME, multigenerational homes, often the ones where extra support would help, are the ones whose return to school will be at once a pedagogical benefit and, potentially, an epidemiological disaster. We could have done so much to support children in so many ways. There are some good examples very local of people coming together to provide learning support. But for our leaders it’s just a ram-it-into-one model approach with some hygiene and distancing at the edges. And meanwhile in the private schools around us – no question of re-opening till September. I feel we’ve missed an opportunity to address some fundamentals of disadvantage, even though we really do know the answers.

Robert Ward
Robert Ward
4 years ago

Simple answer No.
Not right now,but not because of Coronavirus.
Because with schools being shut for a while and especially with this weather there is every possible chance of legionella in water supplies.
I would think a good clean up of that along with a good deep clean and disinfect will be needed first before they can reopen.I say give it 2 weeks to allow for this and other maintenance to be carried out.

Tyler H
Tyler H
4 years ago

A couple of points in this article may need editing. For one, infection and antibodies are not synonymous. People may have been exposed to the disease and fought it off with other defense Systems Prior to their body creating antibodies. Unherd has presented good discussion on this in the past.

For two: “interesting study which found that in the Netherlands, 6.5% of people who turned up at their GP with flu-like symptoms tested positive for Covid-19 ” except for young people. The under-20s actually did have the flu.” That suggests that up to 93.5% of adults over 20 may also have just had the flu.

Malcolm Ripley
Malcolm Ripley
4 years ago

To everyone who keep harping on about “safe”. A quick reminder. The Coronavirus is NOT new it accounts for 15% of common colds from the dawn of time. Since we have never tested for it in the past it is more than likely it has been overlooked as a flu. we specifically noticed SARS and MERS because of their severity. But how the hell would we have ever noticed a virus in the past that didn’t affect 90% of the population (DUH!) and was a problem to the old and sick who were already dying ? We would never have noticed this as being different to Flu.

Let’s apply some logic to this now shall we. The fact is a Coronavirus strain only last for 2 years (hence no more SARS no more MERS). So even if a vaccine was developed (which they didn’t manage for SARS or MERS) it will be useless 2 years from now, oops, you mean the MSM never told you that. Viruses mutate constantly so we are absolutely guaranteed to have a.n.other Covid in the future. Given the prevelance of this variety it is exceedingly likely new variants will appear due to the millions of people and their pets acting as viral mutation hosts! We have two choices :

1. Lockdown every year or two for 6 months for the rest of Human existence. No more playtime, no more sports, no more school plays etc etc etc
or
2. Recognise number 1 is an irrational kneejerk response to the problem that totally ignores the Human immune system and how it works. We need to manage these outbreaks, including seasonal Flu, MUCH better.

End social distancing, re-open everything and make sure we protect the elderly in care homes EVERY year from ALL respiratory viruses. That means spending money on elderly care.

John Church
John Church
4 years ago

The article gives the impression that there is an analysis to be done, with lots of different factors to be considered, trade-offs to be worked out etc. But this is false. There is absolutely NO RISK to children from this virus. End of story.

Steve Dean
Steve Dean
4 years ago
Reply to  John Church

More, well reasoned discussion….

John Church
John Church
4 years ago
Reply to  Steve Dean

Why would anyone think there is a risk to children ? What information do you have that indicates this ?

Steve Dean
Steve Dean
4 years ago
Reply to  John Church

I agree with you, evidence clearly indicates least risk to children. That isn’t the risk though. The risk is to teachers, support staff and the families of the children attending school. The children may be spreading the disease. That is where evidence is not in agreement. It then becomes an argument about how safe is a school in terms of transmission, when you can’t have effective social distancing.

John Church
John Church
4 years ago
Reply to  Steve Dean

My reasoning is that, as per the Office of National Statistics information, there has so far (at least to end April) only been 1 death of a child associated with Covid19 in the 5-14 age bracket. Out of 35,000 deaths. Maybe I am wrong, but isn’t that effectively ‘No Risk’ ?