A low-risk scenario where pupils in England would attend school on alternating weeks was presented to the government as the most likely way to gain popular support before ministers instead settled on their plan for a widespread reopening on 1 June, newly published papers have revealed.
The government’s plan for reopening schools to entire classes of reception, year 1 and year 6 pupils on 1 June was not among the nine scenarios modelled for Sage by the Department for Education. But one of the scientists’ preferred options of splitting classes and having pupils attend on alternate weeks, which they said had “particular potential merit”, was passed over.
The papers of scientific advice prepared for Sage and its subcommittees reveal high levels of uncertainty around different scenarios for school reopenings, and over the likelihood of transmission of the Covid-19 virus by children of different ages.
One of the most recent papers, discussing the effects of increasing school attendance on transmission, concludes: “There is substantial uncertainty, with the relative contribution of school openings being driven also by the relative susceptibility and infectivity of children of different ages compared to adults, as well as the extent to which social distancing is or is not sustained in the wider population.”
The stash of documents released by Sage and the government on Friday afternoon show the scientific advisers wrestling with questions of how easily children could transmit coronavirus, with the experts conceding that exposure outside the schoolyard was likely to be highly influential.
Collectively, the scientific advice appears to do little to assuage fears among parents and teachers over the potential risks in reopening schools to reception, year 1 and year 6 as soon as 1 June, as Boris Johnson pledged earlier this month. On Thursday the governments of both Scotland and Northern Ireland announced that schools in those countries would not return until after the summer holidays.
A modelling paper stated: “The modelling consistently suggests that resuming early-years provision has a smaller relative impact than primary school, which in turn has a smaller relative impact than resuming secondary schooling. However, this analysis does not incorporate potential for indirect impacts on contacts outside of school – which may differ by age of child.”
The modelling of infection spread – carried out by four institutions, including Public Health England – also did not account for the activities of children within schools: “It is important to understand what is going on inside of the school (eg physical distancing, hygiene measures, and more). The potential effect of such actions is not incorporated into the modelling.”
Sage looked at the modelling for nine different scenarios outlined by the Department for Education, from total closure to full reopening. But none of the published scenarios included the three year groups that the government eventually chose.
The committee that examined the modelling appeared to favour two scenarios that would have split both primary and secondary school classes and have different groups of children attend on alternate weeks, labelled scenario seven, which would have seen a low level of potential transmission according to the four results.
The recent paper on modelling continued: “Scenario 7 (alternating one/two weeks on, one/two weeks off) may be a good way to stop extensive transmission chains in schools. When this effect in schools is embedded into the wider community, the impact is less strong, but still has some value in reducing overall R.” But it added: “The modelling of Scenario 7 is the least robust of the scenarios, and further exploration is needed.”
Under “behavioural factors” the committee’s advice stated: “Scenario 7 is likely to be the most effective strategy to make school attendance normative. If steps are taken to synchronise attendance for families with multiple children, this may be the most effective at enabling parents to return to work.
“Scenario 7b, where children alternate in and out of school on a weekly basis, was perceived to be potentially preferable – both developmentally and practically – for young children and working parents.”
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The group looking at the role of children in transmission was most supportive of the reopening option involving split classes coming in on alternating weeks, across both primary and secondary schools.
“Although not initially one of the options proposed by DfE, options 7b (classes split in two, with children attending on alternate weeks) emerged from the joint discussions as having particular potential merit for further consideration,” according to one paper prepared for a meeting on 30 April, just days before Boris Johnson’s announcement on 10 May that primary schools would reopen.
One paper prepared by Sage’s modelling and behavioural subgroups on 16 April warned that, as a result of school closures, some children would have “experienced a shock to their education which will persist and affect their educational and work outcomes for the rest of their lives”.
The experts conceded that “many children will adapt and be just fine”, with lockdown providing some families the chance to “bond more closely”, but they raised serious concerns about children who were already vulnerable, in particular those with special educational needs and disability.
A period of home learning, they added, would reinforce existing inequalities between children, while months off school would mean emerging learning difficulties were missed.
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