Covid traffic light system needed to keep schools safe, scientists say

Concerns expressed that not enough is being done to reduce infection risk in schools
Covid traffic light system needed to keep schools safe, scientists say

ISAG said reopening schools should be a priority but that extra precautions are needed, in particular given the more infectious nature of the B117 Covid variant that is now dominant across the country. Picture:  Larry Cummins

Schools should be managed according to the level of Covid-19 infections in their local area, an independent group of scientists has said.

In a discussion paper on managing schools safely during the pandemic, the Independent Scientific Advocacy Group (ISAG) has made a series of recommendations, including the adoption of a traffic light system for managing schools depending on the level of infection in their local electoral area.

ISAG said reopening schools should be a priority but that extra precautions are needed, in particular given the more infectious nature of the B117 Covid variant that is now dominant across the country.

Last week saw more than 300,000 students return to school as part of a phased reopening plan but ISAG has expressed concern that not enough is being done to reduce infection risk in schools.

It has called for all pupils from the age of six upwards to wear masks and said schools should assess and monitor ventilation and CO2 levels in every classroom and shared indoor space.

Schools, the group said, could monitor air quality through a “relatively small investment” in mobile CO2 monitoring units that could identify when air changes are needed or problem spaces requiring better ventilation. 

The Health Protection Surveillance Centre has recommended that CO2 levels should be less than 800 parts per million.

The group, founded by UCC scientist, Gerry Killeen; DCU public health expert Anthony Staines, and TCD scientist, Tomás Ryan, also advocated a colour-coded or traffic light system for opening or closing schools depending on Covid-19 infection rates at a local electoral area (LEA) level.

Schools should only reopen when the reproductive or R number falls below 1.0 and when the 14-day LEA infection rate is falling and is not more than 100 Covid-19 cases per 100,000 population.

Where the LEA infection rate was between 50 and 100 cases per 100,000 population, schools would fall into a ‘red’ category that would require significantly reduced class sizes and online learning for other pupils not attending in-person as well as hourly monitoring of ventilation and air quality.

Schools in LEAs with a Covid-19 infection rate of between 10 and 50 cases per 100,000 population would fall into an ‘amber’ category, which would allow for the return of all pupils to the classroom and require hourly air quality checks throughout the school.

Where infection levels were less than 10 cases per 100,000 population, schools in the “green” category could afford to relax more of the measures in place but would maintain some measures, such as all pupils over the age of 12 continuing to wear masks.

The latest LEA data shows that, under ISAG’s proposals, schools would only open in around a quarter of the country.

As of March 1, just 40 out of 166 local electoral areas fell below the suggested infection rate threshold — none of the areas fell into the ‘green’ category, 15 areas would qualify as ‘amber’, and 25 areas would fall into the ‘red’ category.

The ISAG group also called for the definition of a close contact to be expanded to the whole class rather than a pod or group of pupils, which is what schools are currently working to, and for rapid testing to be carried out where Covid-19 cases are confirmed.

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