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10 March 2021updated 05 Oct 2023 8:31am

Why we need a more honest debate about the risks of reopening schools

No one is arguing that children are at particularly high risk of Covid. The worry is that they might help spread the disease.

By Stuart Ritchie

Everything’s emotive in a pandemic. I didn’t necessarily expect to be told I should be arrested – as I was by one correspondent last week – for expressing scepticism about the effects of a particular drug on Covid-19. But some areas are even more emotive than others. As schools across the UK have reopened in recent weeks, the debate over whether this will worsen the pandemic has flared up anew, with some acrimonious results.

In such a contentious debate it doesn’t help that some scientists have been talking past one another, while others have been sloppy at best about getting their facts straight.

In Sweden a row broke out over a brief paper published in February in the New England Journal of Medicine. Its authors had argued that there were few serious cases of disease in children or teachers in the early part of the pandemic in 2020, vindicating Sweden’s policy of keeping schools open. As you might expect, the paper was a major hit among lockdown-sceptic accounts on social media.

The problem was that a freedom of information style-request following the study had uncovered an email in which one of the authors, Jonas Ludvigsson, had noted that there were excess deaths of children during the period in question, though he hadn’t specifically pinned down the cause. It seems unusual, to say the least, not to mention this at all in public.

But as noted by other critiques of the paper, this is something of a distraction: nobody is arguing that children are themselves at particularly high risk of Covid. The worry is that they might help spread the disease to others, and that their mixing at school will prolong the pandemic. The Swedish scientists failed entirely to discuss evidence of school-related Covid outbreaks in the country, of which there were several.

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How worried should we be about the reopening of schools in the UK? This week, a group of researchers argued that the pandemic could accelerate if the right measures aren’t taken while opening schools. This is in line with the latest modelling from the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, which estimates that reopening schools will tip the reproduction (R) number back above 1, meaning that cases will start to grow after weeks of steady decline.

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[See also: Emily Oster on why reopening schools is the safest option]

Why would this be? A bracingly detailed examination of contact-tracing and other studies by the epidemiologist Zoë Hyde suggest that children transmit Covid at similar rates to adults – but because they’re less likely to be symptomatic, their infectiousness is often overlooked. And even if the average infected child doesn’t go on to infect many people, we know that a great deal of transmission is by super-spreaders, when a small number of people are the origin of a large number of infections.

Hyde’s work has been criticised by other researchers, but their responses are unimpressive: they quibble with some of her terminology, talk about diseases other than Covid, and focus on the distracting issue of death rates in children (or irrelevant factors such as the publication status of Hyde’s article). I suppose this is scientific discussion – but it’s not particularly edifying.

Hyde and her critics agree, though, that if we’re to open schools we should be doing everything possible within them to slow the spread. In that respect it’s not all positive news: for example, the reasoning given by Public Health England for primary school children not having to wear masks – that it might interfere with the development of their communication skills – seems rather tenuous.

On the other hand, some commentators are underestimating the extent to which schools understand Covid mitigation. The epidemiologist Eric Feigl-Ding told his half-million Twitter followers this week that there are “no school mask requirements” and “no air quality & ventilation guidelines” for English schools. But (as he later partly acknowledged) that’s not true: secondary-school children are encouraged to wear masks at school, and there are detailed government ventilation guidelines.

Indeed, schools have been ahead of the rest of UK society on the importance of ventilation. Tortoise’s Chris Cook pointed me towards polls on the TeacherTapp site from late last year, where substantial proportions of responding teachers said that their classrooms were “nippy” or outright freezing cold due to all the window-opening to increase the flow of fresh air. I haven’t seen specific polling, but I’d bet that teachers are more aware of the main ways that Covid spreads than the rest of us, who still obsess over handwashing and often forget to open the windows.

The back-and-forth over school reopening is frustrating. Critics of school closures give chapter and verse – verging on emotional manipulation – about the importance of education to children’s futures, but largely fail to engage with the detailed evidence on transmission from contact-tracing studies. On the other side, those worried about transmission in schools barely mention the downsides for children of skipping education, and downplay the measures already in place to mitigate spread. 

Time will tell whether the reopenings lead to an uptick in UK case numbers. But the bitter arguments over the evidence aren’t exactly a shining example of scientific debate.

[See also: Stuart Ritchie’s on the weaknesses of the UK’s quarantine plans]