While the evidence to date seems to indicate that schools may not quite be the ‘hotbeds of infection’ we first thought when Covid-19 reared its head, they won’t be completely risk-free environments.
Just this week, we have seen a creche in Meath closed, despite taking every conceivable precaution, following Government guidelines and investing in €10,000 worth of PPE. Inevitably, there will also be outbreaks linked to schools; the acting chief medical officer agrees as much.
At the Monday evening National Public Health Emergency Team (NPHET) briefing, Dr Ronan Glynn said while there will be outbreaks in schools when they reopen, only 2% of all reported cases are children and it appears “they don't transmit very effectively to other children or adults".
A review carried out by the European Centre for Disease Control (ECDC) points out that when symptomatic, children shed the virus in similar quantities to adults, and can infect others in a similar way to adults. It is "unknown" how infectious asymptomatic children are, the ECDC also pointed out.
The review, which looks at the scientific literature and data from the European Surveillance System, includes an assessment of the role of childcare and schools in the transmission of the virus. When appropriate physical distancing and hygiene measures are in place, schools are unlikely to be more effective "propagating environments" than other enclosed places with similar densities of people, according to the ECDC.
And while the effect of school closures on limiting the spread of Covid-19 is largely unknown, the negative effect of school closures on children's wellbeing, learning opportunities, and safety is well-documented, the review added. Dr Glynn believes the associated risks here are “far outweighed” by the benefits of children going back to school.
"On balance, if we keep community transmission low in the communities, the risks to individual children should be low," he said.
When they reopen, Irish schools will have to deal with confirmed cases, on top of everything else they have dealt with since closing classrooms in March. Further advice published by the ECDC highlighted this week the importance of effective contact tracing and isolation when it comes to schools. Even if there is increasing evidence of the low impact of Covid-19 in children, the overall role that children play in transmission remains unclear, it notes.
This means a well-implemented testing strategy in schools might play an important role in preventing the virus spreading within a school, and on to the community. According to the ECDC, staff and students who shared a classroom at the same time for more than 15 minutes would be considered close-contacts and would face a quarantine in the event a case be confirmed.
Likewise, anyone who travelled together via any mode of transport, i.e the school bus, for more than 15 minutes are also classified by the ECDC as close-contacts, as are students that have been in close proximity during breaks or sporting activities, in cafeterias, gyms or playgrounds. Deemed to be high-risk in terms of exposure, all students and staff members who interacted this way would also be facing quarantine. It's not hard to see the disruption this could cause a school.
Professor Anthony Staines, a public health expert from Dublin City University (DCU) told the: “The challenge for planning to reopen schools is that the virus is in the community."
Professor Staines is a strong advocate for driving new cases of the virus down to zero. While we shouldn't delay school reopenings "for the sake of it", he believes it will be a challenge to open them "safely and effectively" unless we sharply reduce our numbers.
“There needs to be a very clear plan," he said.
The Department of Education is currently updating its guide on what to do in the event of a localised school closure. Specifically, this will focus on communication to staff and students, and on how to develop an approach to remote and blended learning in the event it is required.
"The Department will continue to liaise with public health officials in the lead up to the reopening of schools in late August, as has been the case since the beginning of the pandemic," a department spokesman said.
Where there is a suspected or confirmed case of Covid-19 amongst school staff or pupils, schools need to maintain both staff and pupil confidentiality at all times and must follow the instructions of HSE Public Health, he added.