What is the best way to reopen schools safely? Reflections from Scotland

Christopher Chapman and Sarah Weakley

When Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon announced the country’s new stay-at-home order on January 4, her stated priority was for educational settings to reopen again for all children and young people as quickly as possible.

Subject to continued reductions in prevalence and community transmission, and the appropriate infection prevention and control mitigations being in place, the First Minister stated that a phased return to in-person learning could be possible from 22 February – starting with ‘early learning and childcare (ELC), P1-P3 primary schoolchildren, and small numbers of senior secondary pupils requiring practical in-school learning’.

Based on our experience of researching the pandemic and advising the Scottish Government on education and children’s issues, including school reopening, this blog discusses:

  • the evidence used to inform the decision of when and how to reopen schools in Scotland;
  • the implications for pupils and staff returning to in-person instruction; and
  • the lessons we’ve learned with regard to this aspect of the nation’s recovery from the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The evidence driving our decision-making

The decision to close Scottish schools, and the wider stay-at-home restrictions, has led to case numbers, levels of community transmission, and test positivity decreasing in recent weeks. According to the government’s latest update (Feb 4), the virus’s reproduction (R) rate in Scotland is currently between 0.7 and 0.9, and hospitalisations have decreased (these key metrics are similar to what was seen in mid-October 2020).

Importantly, infections among children remain low. The modelling suggested there would be a plateauing and then a reduction in infections throughout February if the stay-at-home order remained in place, compliance was high, and there were positive community impacts from the vaccination campaign.

A significant change in the decision-making context of 2021 is that leaders now have a more robust evidence-base on (i) the nature of COVID-19 transmission and its health impacts on both school pupils and staff, and (ii) the wider impacts of school closures on children and young people, based on the experiences of 2020. (These issues were discussed at the recent IPPO roundtable, for which we drew on the research, developmental and knowledge-exchange work undertaken by Policy Scotland and Children’s Neighbourhoods Scotland.)

The Scottish Government’s Advisory Subgroup on Education and Children’s Issues considered existing evidence in four areas, leading to the following findings:

  1. Transmission of COVID-19 among children: As was the case for other strains of the virus, children and young people transmit the new variant at lower rates than adults, and have lower risk of being infected than adults. There is no evidence to suggest that the new variant has a more severe impact on children and young people than adults.
  2. Transmission of COVID-19 in school settings: Community transmission is the main driver of infection in school settings. Evidence from the World Health Organisation shows there have been very few outbreaks originating in schools, and EU evidence suggests the return of children to school does not seem to drive an increase in infections (the transmission of COVID-19 in schools is particularly low in primary schools). An important factor in low in-school transmission is safety measures such as mask wearing for all those aged five and up, two-metre social distancing and regular handwashing, and daily screening of students and staff. Mitigations are key.
  3. Impact of COVID-19 on staff: There is understandable concern that the return to in-person instruction would put teachers at a higher risk of infection and severe illness. However, teachers were not at an increased risk of hospitalisation with COVID-19 than the general population, and were at lower risk of severe COVID-19 (taking into account demographic factors such as age, sex, ethnicity and deprivation).
  4. Wider health and educational impacts: Schools play an essential role in reducing inequality, ensuring children and young people’s physical and mental health, safeguarding vulnerable children, and improving life chances. The closure of in-person schooling in 2020 had negative impacts on young people’s self-reported mental and emotional health, and the social and emotional development and wellbeing of very young children in ELC – with more severe impacts for low-income households. It has also led to significant learning loss at all levels, which means that educational inequalities have widened.

What is the best way to reopen schools safely?

The negative impacts of school closures for the majority of students must be weighed against the scale of the public health crisis and the prevalence of community transmission. The evidence-base has implications for three key areas:

  1. Phased return and messaging: It is important to be transparent and move in a staged and progressive way to returning all students to school. The cycle of COVID-19 infection and hospitalisation necessitates a period of two-to-three weeks between each phase of return, in order to fully assess the impact of changes. It is important to convey clearly that (i) the return of all students will only be possible if community transmission is low, and (ii) low community transmission means fewer infections in schools.
  2. Mitigations to support safe return: Research shows that with the effective implementation of infection and control measures, there is low-to-no transmission of COVID-19 for children in primary schools. Therefore, safety measures in schools should be revised based on community transmission levels, rather than closing primary schools to on-site teaching. For secondary students and staff, two-metre social distancing should form part of the arrangements for a return to school. In all school settings, a renewed focus is needed on the use of face coverings in line with existing guidance (including parents dropping off students) and on hygiene and ventilation.
  3. Testing: The ability for at-home testing of secondary staff and pupils using lateral flow devices is a potential additional measure to manage the associated risks, and one that was not widely available in 2020. This can help to ensure that a small cohort of senior pupils at important examination phases can go into school for face-to-face teaching in practical subjects. This at-home testing will identify asymptomatic individuals more readily, so they and their contacts can self-isolate. These testing measures, however, should be voluntary.

Some key learnings from our discussions

The reopening of schools is a challenging and problematic process. However, the path forward must be led by evidence: on the transmission and health impacts of COVID-19 on pupil and staff populations, as well as on the impacts of the policies put in place to suppress the virus. We now have much more robust evidence in both of these areas, and we can therefore make sounder, evidence-informed decisions at every phase of the reopening process. This must be triangulated with the effect of mitigations, compliance, and – most importantly – the wider harms caused by the pandemic.

It is also important to be transparent with school staff, parents and pupils about why decisions are being made, and to point them to the evidence that helped leaders make those decisions. Clarity and transparency will also be needed as leaders evaluate the first and subsequent phases of school reopening.

Finally, evaluating the impact of each phase of reopening in three-weekly cycles, led by what we know about a range of indicators including infections and hospitalisations, should allow for leaders to avoid speculation and confusion about the next steps, and lead to greater levels of confidence in evidence-based decision-making.

Professor Christopher Chapman is Director of Policy Scotland, at the University of Glasgow , and Senior Academic Adviser to the Scottish Government. He is a member of the COVID-19 Advisory Sub-Group for Education and Children’s Issues, and writes here in a personal capacity.

Dr Sarah Weakley is the Research and Impact Acceleration Officer with Policy Scotland, based at the University of Glasgow.