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"It is not safe to open schools anywhere on 1 June" - Independent Sage

Yesterday the Independent Sage Group published its final report: When Should a School Reopen? following its public consultation. Independent Sage are a group of pre-eminent experts from the UK and around the world, which formed to provide robust, independent advice to help the UK navigate COVID-19 whilst minimising fatalities. It is chaired by Sir David King, a former Chief Scientific Advisor to the government and shouldn't be confused with the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) who advise the government.

It used the frameworks of the recently published guidance from UNESCO (new guidelines to provide a road map for safe reopening of schools) (UNESCO, 2020) and WHO guidance for schools (WHO, 2020), and considered the impact of school opening on children, staff and the wider community - including parents, grandparents and guardians. 

It believes that it is not yet safe to re-open schools and colleges on 1 June and recommends that local test, track and isolate programmes must be in place and shown to work at a local level before it will be safe to do so. However, it proposes alternative testing strategies if schools/colleges decide to re-open without these systems in place.

Delaying re-opening

For primary school children, the report indicates that if schools delay reopening by two weeks until 15 June the risk that a child will become infected halves. It decreases further if re-opening is delayed until September.  

Risk to staff, parents and household contacts

Even if there are very few new infections within schools, the situation could still create risk for some adults who come into contact with infected children, particularly for those who are male, come from low income backgrounds, have underlying health conditions or are from BAME backgrounds as these groups are all more vulnerable to dying if they catch the disease. 

International data suggests that children are as likely as adults to become infected and carry the virus. In many cases, they are also asymptomatic. They may be less likely than adults to transmit the virus because, for instance, adults are contagious for longer than children. However, it says that the impact of placing many children in one place could lead schools to become “institutional amplifiers”, if children without any symptoms go unnoticed until an adult becomes symptomatic. 

Reducing the risk of transmission

Social distancing is necessary to restrict transmission. 

The report questions the logic of asking reception and Year 1 children to return and 'simply be placed behind desks and expected to understand distancing rules'  - something that SAGE also raised in its report. But, there are also problems in secondary schools too where pupils are allocated to different ability sets. New arrangements are necessary to make sure that pupils remain together in a classes of 15 or fewer. To achieve this, pupils may have to be 'taught by a single subject teacher for several days, supplemented by distance learning with other subject specialists'.

Risk assessments

It recommends that risk assessments should be conducted at four levels:

  • of the school
  • its staff
  • its pupils
  • and the parents and family environment

It has developed a Risk Assessment Tool which incorporates some of the recommendations by the US Center for Diseases Control and Prevention. 

It suggests that schools consider alternatives to teaching in their usual classrooms, such as taking lessons outdoors and using large non-school facilities such as sports centres and football stadiums.

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The committee accused the government of not listening to its own scientific advice.

“This is just too early,” said Sir David King, a former government chief scientific adviser and the chairman of Independent Sage. “We know that … opening up schools has the potential to raise R by up to 0.3. So we are really concerned that the level of infectivity across the country as a whole is too high to open schools.””