Here's what scientists say about coronavirus being transmitted in schools - and when Scottish pupils will return

Monday, 10th August 2020, 1:45 pm
Updated Monday, 10th August 2020, 1:46 pm
Schools can reopen to pupils in Scotland from 11 August (Photo: Shutterstock)

Pupils across Scotland are due to return to classrooms this week, in a phased return following months of closure.

While the Scottish government has confirmed that schools can safely reopen from 11 August, there are concerns it could lead to a fresh outbreak of coronavirus.

But what are the risks of transmission? Here’s what you need to know.

Could coronavirus be transmitted in schools?

There is “little evidence” of coronavirus being transmitted in schools, Education Secretary Gavin Williamson has said.

Mr Williamson assured that the government was being guided by the best scientific and medical advice ahead of schools reopening to ensure children are able to return safely.

He said: “The latest research which is expected to be published later this year - one of the largest studies on coronavirus in schools in the world - makes it clear that there is little evidence that the virus is transmitted at school.

“There is also growing confidence among parents about their children returning. This is down to the hard work of school staff across the country who are putting in place a range of protective measures to prepare to welcome back all pupils at the start of term.”

In England, there have been calls for an improvement in the NHS Test and Trace system to prevent an outbreak in infections, but ministers have said the safety measures in place in schools will help to keep the risk of spread low.

Health and social care minister Helen Whately told Sky News as well as the latest research showing transmission risk in schools is “very low”, measures such as teaching in bubbles, staggering start and finish times, and encouraging both pupils and staff to frequently wash and sanitise their hands means it is safe for children to return.

However, the claims of low risk of transmission in school comes following recent outbreaks in the US state of Georgia and in Israel.

A new report by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) into an outbreak at a summer camp in Georgia has suggested that children, even asymptomatic cases, may be significant in community transmission of coronavirus.

Contrary to earlier theories about the spread of the virus in children, youngsters, as well as those who spend longer at the camp, appeared more likely to be infected.

The CDC report said: “The findings demonstrate that Sars-CoV-2 spreads efficiently in a youth-centric overnight setting, resulting in high attack rates among persons in all age groups, despite efforts by camp officials to implement most recommended strategies to prevent transmission.

“Asymptomatic infection was common and potentially contributed to undetected transmission, as has been previously reported.

“This investigation adds to the body of evidence demonstrating that children of all ages are susceptible to Sars-CoV-2 infection and, contrary to early reports, might play an important role in transmission.”

The events in Georgia appear to mirror an outbreak in Israel, where a rapid and full reopening of schools contributed to a resurgence of the virus.

Children returned to schools in May, but by the end of the month the virus had spread through classrooms, forcing authorities to shut around 100 schools before the summer break and order thousands of pupils and teachers into quarantine.

When do schools in Scotland go back?

The Scottish government has said that schools can reopen to pupils from 11 August, with all pupils expected to be at school full time no later than 18 August.

The government has said that schools can opt for a phased return over the first few days of the new term.

Hundreds of nursery, primary and special schools are due to return from Wednesday 12 August, while secondary schools will have a more staggered return due to their size and time table arrangements.

Different year groups will return on different dates, but all pupils should be back in class full-time by no later than Tuesday 18 August.

What rules will be in place?

Pupils will not be required to follow strict social distancing rules, but measures will be in place in secondary schools to actively encourage physical distancing.

As far as possible, secondary year groups will maintain a distance between each other and will be discouraged from making physical contact, such as via hand-to-hand greetings and hugs. Some schools may also enforce a ban on bags being brought into schools.

Classrooms will be adjusted where possible to create space between desks or individual children, and secondary pupils will be seated forward-facing and side by side, rather than face-to-face.

Where staffing allows, secondary schools may also consider altering class sizes to create more space.

One-way systems may be implemented in all schools if necessary, and where possible children will use external space to move between buildings.

To aid distancing, start and finish times are likely to be staggered and will vary from school to school, and there will be individual drop-off and pick-up protocols. All parents will be asked to refrain from entering school grounds.