chools do not appear to be increasing the spread of covid and should remain open, health experts said today.
Researchers said there was no evidence yet that schools increased the transmission of the virus, though further work was needed to be certain.
This comes after Greenwich council was forced by the Government to reopen its schools, children in Waltham Forest were ordered back after one day at home and as Islington said it would hold inset days today and tomorrow to avoid pupils having to attend.
Dr Shamez Ladhani, a consultant at Public Health England and the study’s chief investigator, said: “The bottom line is: keeping children in school has to be the most important factor.
“It’s not just about their education. It’s about their growth. It’s about their upbringing. It’s about their social skills. It’s about their mental health. It’s about making sure children get fed properly and they have access to social services. The list goes on and on.
“It’s so important that we keep children in school physically so there is some sort of normality in people’s lives.”
The study, conducted with the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and the Office for National Statistics last month, tested pupils and staff in 63 secondaries and 42 primaries in hot-spot areas across the country, including in Barking and Dagenham.
It found that 1.24 per cent of pupils and 1.29 per cent of staff tested during school visits in November were positive for covid. The study had tested for “silent infections” in people without symptoms.
It found that infection rates were higher in staff and students in secondary schools, but this difference was not statistically significant.
The results mirror the ONS’s weekly covid infection study, which found 1.2 per cent of the general population had the coronavirus during the week to November 14.
Dr Ladhani said rates had increased in schools this Autumn, compared with summer, but no evidence was found of outbreaks of six cases or more within classroom “bubbles”.
He said: “I think we should try to keep schools open as normally as possible, and as long as possible.
“We know there is infection happening in school-age children. What we don’t know is the dynamics of that infection – whether they’re occurring inside schools or outside schools or at home.
“The infection rates in schools are closely linked to community infection rates. The message that we believe is critical is that the lower the community infection rates, the less chances of the infection getting into schools and increasing the chances of the schools remaining open during the pandemic.”
Students and staff are being tested for both the presence of the virus and antibodies, which indicate past infection, throughout the school year. This is to detect new cases, monitor covid-related absences from school, and assess the effectiveness of measures put in place to control the virus.
Professor James Hargreaves, co-chief investigator of the study from LSHTM, said: “The more information we can collect about infection rates within schools, the better understanding we have of their role in transmission within the wider community and how to minimise SARS-CoV2 transmission.
“These findings show that, in November, a significant number of students and staff who were attending school had coronavirus infection. With this crucial collaboration between the scientists, school staff and pupils, and their parents, we hope to answer questions to ensure children’s education can continue in the safest way possible.”