Scientists call for action after 50-fold rise in infections in schools

Pupils wear face masks at a school in Scotland (PA) An independent group of scientists

Pupils wear face masks at a school in Scotland (PA)
Pupils wear face masks at a school in Scotland (PA)

An independent group of scientists has called for “urgent action” to make schools more Covid-secure, after it was revealed that infection rates among secondary pupils have soared 50-fold since classrooms reopened in September.

Teenagers aged 11-16 are now the age group with the highest levels of infection in England, and one in ten are reported to be off school either because of confirmed or suspected coronavirus or because they have been in contact with a potentially contagious person.

While many teens show no symptoms from Covid-19, the Independent Sage group warned that they risk bringing the virus home to parents and grandparents, who are more vulnerable to developing serious health problems.

And the group’s chair, former chief scientific adviser Professor Sir David King, warned that the risk will be heightened as multiple generations of families come together to celebrate Christmas under the government’s relaxed restrictions.

“You need to be exceptionally careful in a multi-generational situation, indoors at home, celebrating with a glass of champagne or whatever else, as attractive as all of that is,” said Professor King. “Unless people have isolated for 10-12 days before meeting up, it’s a very dangerous situation. There will be a price to pay for Christmas. We do all have to realise that we are putting members of our own family at risk in this process.”

In a report today, the group called for more teaching via video link in high-risk areas, more use of face masks in the classroom and funds to provide warm clothing for children from disadvantaged backgrounds, so windows can be kept wide open to improve ventilation even in cold winter weather.

Independent Sage also called for the cancellation of primary school tests and for A-level and GCSE exams to be replaced by teacher assessments next year.

The report cited new figures from the Office for National Statistics, showing infection rates among 11-16 year-olds at 0.04 per cent on 1 September, before the reopening of schools for the autumn term.

By 21 November, the latest date for which figures are available, the proportion of this age group believed to be positive was 2.16 per cent – 54 times higher over a 12-week period. Positivity peaked at 2.28 per cent on 16 and 17 November.

The same figures showed a higher proportion of positive cases among 11- to 16-year-olds than any other age group, followed by those age 18 to 24 – including sixth-form and university students – at 1.92 per cent, while those aged 50 to 69 were at 0.83 per cent and over-70s at 0.54 per cent.

In some areas, infections among teenagers equated to one for every class of 30, said Independent Sage experts.

Official statistics show that around 20 per cent of secondary pupils are off school, of whom around half are believed to be away for Covid-related reasons. Around 1 per cent of state secondaries in England are closed.

“It is now clear that secondary school students can be infected and infect each other and adults, and this is at last acknowledged by the government’s official advisers in Sage,” said the report.

“Children and young people at school tend to have a wide transmission circle which can endanger parents and grandparents. Whilst wishing to minimise disruption to children’s education, stricter guidelines are urgently needed for reducing opportunities for infection.”

The report, compiled after consultation with heads, teachers and parents, claimed that schools had been denied key information and resources and offered “incoherent” advice by government. It said that bans on schools rearranging holidays or switching to blended learning – part-online and part-classroom based – had made problems worse.

“The present situation in many of the worst affected schools and communities is characterised by confusion, secrecy, mistrust, fear, demoralisation and exhaustion,” said the report. “The situation is clearly not sustainable.”

Professor Stephen Reicher of the University of St Andrews, of Independent Sage, said: “In the summer, the government effectively abandoned schools, requiring them to be safe but without providing the support or the resources to make this possible.

“As a result, far too many of our children are left in crowded, badly ventilated classrooms; infections have increased 50-fold since September; one in five students are off school; and all this is now putting the whole community at risk.

“The government must acknowledge its error and change direction. We must act urgently to make schools safe.”

The report, prepared with education research group Eagle, called for wider use of blended learning, guidance to encourage secondary pupils to wear face masks in lessons, smaller classes in primaries and better ventilation.

Self-isolation should be practised by all children in a school “bubble” and not just those who sit nearest to an infected child, said Independent Sage. And it said that staff who are clinically vulnerable should be enabled to work from home if possible.

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