One of the largest studies in the world on coronavirus in schools, carried out in 100 institutions in the UK, will confirm that “there is very little evidence that the virus is transmitted” there, according to a leading scientist.
Professor Russell Viner, president of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health and a member of the government advisory group Sage, said: “A new study that has been done in UK schools confirms there is very little evidence that the virus is transmitted in schools.
“This is the some of the largest data you will find on schools anywhere. Britain has done very well in terms of thinking of collecting data in schools.”
The study is being carried out by Public Health England and is expected to be published later this year.
About 20,000 pupils and teachers in 100 schools across England were tested to monitor the spread of the disease up to the end of the summer term.
It is hoped that the results of the study will help to allay people’s fears about the wider reopening of schools which is due to start next month.
Viner, 57, says a full reopening of schools is “imperative”. He warns that children have lost friendships, missed months of lessons and will suffer long-term social, mental and academic problems if schools stay closed. For teenagers, in particular, being cut off from their peers is bad for their development.
He says that if test and trace systems are still not effective enough to curb a new surge of the virus, the government must close pubs, clubs, some shops or any businesses “not essential to the future of society” — such as cinemas — to allow schools, “which are essential to our future”, to reopen. Viner adds that schools must have tests that can be turned around within 24 hours to enable the rapid isolation of infected people.
“It is absolutely essential for schools to reopen in September. The risks to children from Covid are very low and the risks of school closures we know are very serious,” he said.
“Britain as a nation should stand up and say: our children are essential. Reopening schools is essential. If we do not feel test and trace is fully in place by September, we need to look carefully at the level of R [rating the virus’s ability to spread] at that point and look at what trade-offs may be necessary.
“That is when I would be very clear that schools need to be open before pubs and clubs.”
Reopen schools and consider what premises need to close, he emphasised. “I think many Britons would find it very difficult to think pubs were open when schools were shut,” he said.
“It is about what is necessary for the future of society and what is not. Schools are necessary and I am afraid that pubs are not.”
Viner suggested another study next month was likely to reassure parents. His team had reviewed 35 studies from around the world that had examined schools and the coronavirus.
One finding has been that “children play a minor role in transmission of the virus and schools play a minor role in transmission of the virus”.
One of the worst outbreaks was in Israel at Gymnasia Rehavia, a school in Jerusalem, where 153 pupils and 25 staff were infected in late May and early June.
An outbreak at a secondary school in New Zealand had infected 96 pupils, teachers, staff and parents. A neighbouring primary school, however, had seen few cases.
“Everything you do to reopen society will impact the national R, but reopening schools, we believe, has a very small impact on it. The majority of cases are staff, not students,” Viner said.