Teachers do not face an elevated risk of contracting COVID-19, according to the results of a survey that says keeping kids at home may be doing more harm than good.
The COVID-19 Schools Infection Survey (SIS) took a closer look at 41 primary and 80 secondary schools in England ahead of a government-ordered return to classrooms on March 8, according to i-News. The group, jointly formed by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM), Public Heath England (PHE) and the Office for National Statistics (ONS), found that 14.99 per cent of school staff tested positive for COVID antibodies between December 2 to December 10 — lower than the 18.22 per cent positivity rate found in other working age adults.
Researchers credited “huge efforts” by schools for the 14.61 per cent positivity rate among primary school teachers and 15.72 per cent rate among secondary school teachers.
“These efforts included symptomatic individuals staying at home, but also efforts by schools at enhanced cleaning and hygiene protocols, limiting gatherings and staff distancing and almost all the schools incorporated those measures,” said Sinéad Langan, the study’s co-chief investigator and a professor of Clinical Epidemiology at LSHTM. “All schools also implemented a bubble system, but there was a little bit of variation on whether this applied to class sizes, which is more common in primary schools, or year groups, which is what we would expect to be more common in secondary schools.”
In England, most primary schools keep interaction between bubbles at a minimum, while allowing closer contact between teachers and students within the bubble. Secondary schools focused on limiting contact within bubbles, but employed fewer methods to prevent mingling across bubbles.
Tensions have been high in the country with a mass return to classrooms — dubbed the “big bang” — just a week away. England’s teaching unions have called the move “madness.” The rest of the U.K. has opted to use different dates, and a staggered return, to get students back in their seats.
“It’s like a sense of impending doom,” said Jack Marsh, a 34-year-old instructor in south London. “I try not to let it get me down, but it’s more like a physical sensation. It’s always there. I’ve contacted my GP about it.”
It would be naïve to think the rate of infection won’t rise once classes are back in session, said the study’s lead investigator Shamez Ladhani, but the alternative would be worse.
“Like with anything you do it has got its own risks,” he said. “A lot of modelling studies have shown it will go up, but not by a lot. One study suggested it might go up by 0.4, but if we are at a very low community infection rate then I think 0.4 may not be a huge thing.
“At the end of the day it’s very dependent on community infection rates with what happens to schools. It’s not just about schools, it’s about going to schools, about parents taking public transport, about meeting and picking them up. The whole process of schooling comes with a small risk. The bottom line is the benefits of bringing children back to school far outweigh any risks that we see with COVID.”
Ontario cautiously allowed students to return to schools last month based on the advice of the province’s chief medical officer of health, David Williams. “Ontario is ready to reopen our schools because it is safe,” said Education Minister Stephen Lecce, according to the CBC. “Safety has and is what will drive our decisions every step of the way. We know how critical getting kids back to school is. We will not put your child and your family at risk.”
He added: “I want to be clear: If things change, if trends move in the wrong direction, following the advice of the chief medical officer of health, we will not hesitate to act.”
Health officials on the other side of the pond are also aware of the risks and said they will be keeping a close eye on the numbers as the big bang comes and goes. “We have lower prevalence in the school communities than in the community population as a whole, which is what one would hope as anyone who has had known contact with a positive case would not be present in school,” said James Hargreaves, professor in epidemiology and evaluation at LSHTM and co-chief investigator.
“This does not mean there is no risk (to anyone in schools) as they are at risk at any point if the virus is circulating in the community. Schools are working hard to control transmission within the school environment. And the combination of these controlling measures does suggest that teachers are not at greater risk than other working-age adults in the population.”
Dave Yasvinski is a writer with Healthing.ca
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