Coronavirus: is it safe to reopen schools?

Researchers are divided over the risk posed by Covid-19 to children

French schoolchildren wearing protective masks
Schoolchildren wearing protective masks and face shields in France
(Image credit: Photo by Damien Meyer/AFP via Getty Images)

Downing Street is drawing up plans for the reopening of schools in England from next month following the coronavirus shutdown.

Schools across the country have been closed since 20 March, but will begin a phased reopening from 1 June under the government’s lockdown exit strategy.

Reception, Year One and Year Six students who will be first to head back - but despite the implementation of social distancing measures including smaller classes, fears for children’s safety remain.

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Is it safe to reopen schools?

Researchers are split over the risk posed by the Covid-19 coronavirus to children.

The Guardian reports that “only a handful of studies have been carried out across the world, and scientists are divided over their interpretation”.

Advocates of the imminent reopening of UK schools include Dr Alasdair Munro, a paediatric infectious disease expert at University Hospital Southampton, who points to a study conducted in the northern Italian town of Vo, at the heart of the country’s coronavirus outbreak.

Researchers from the University of Padua and the Red Cross tested more than 80% of the town’s 3,300-odd residents - including those who did not have symptoms - and found that while 2.8% tested positive, no children under the age of ten had caught the virus.

“Yet quite a number of children were living in households with infected people,” Munro notes.

Studies in Norway, South Korea and Iceland have resulted in similar findings, with “very low rates of infected children in communities”, The Guardian adds.

However, Bloomberg reports that research at the Institute of Virology at Berlin’s Charite hospital found that children were just as infectious as adults, triggered fresh warnings against reopening schools too swiftly.

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What can be learned from countries that have already restarted classes?

Denmark reopened its schools last month, with safety measures in place that are now “the go-to model for Boris Johnson’s government as it seeks to coax teachers and unions into going back to work”, The Observer says.

Students in the Nordic country are encouraged to keep two metres apart at all times, with some classes held in the open air, and schools have introduced strict hand-sanitising regimes.

The Danish reopening “has, so far, been smooth”, the newspaper continues, but “does that mean it is necessarily the right one for Britain?”

Dorte Lange, vice-president of the Danish Union of Teachers, points out that “the situation in society and with Covid-19 is totally different” in the two countries, with Danish schools having closed a week before those in the UK, and different approaches to lockdown by the two governments.

Indeed, the measures put in place by the various countries that are starting to reopen schools are nothing less than a “giant experiment”, says The New York Times.

In China, students now enter school through thermal scanners and eat lunch at tables outfitted with plastic dividers. Meanwhile in the Australian city of Sydney, schools are reopening to classes cut into groups, with students attending one day per week alongside a quarter of their peers. Hong Kong and Japan are experimenting with a similar approach.

But with so many questions still unanswered, “experts say mass testing is the only way to avoid the reopening of schools becoming a gamble”, The New York Times says.

In an opinion piece for The Guardian, Dr Lee Hudson, a consultant paediatrician and chief of mental health services at Great Ormond Street, says that ultimately, no one knows exactly when will be the best time to send children back to school.

“When is it safe to go back, and what are the risks? It’s likely no one is going to be able to give a firm answer for some time, so it is about balancing knowns and unknowns,” he concludes.

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