Schools are not a high-risk setting for transmission of COVID-19 between pupils, or between pupils and staff, and their reopening should be considered as an early, rather than a late measure in the lifting of restrictions, a new Irish study has found.
Experts in public health with the HSE examined the evidence relating to the paediatric transmission of the virus in schools in the Republic of Ireland and found no evidence of secondary transmission of COVID-19 from children attending in 2020.
All schools have been closed here since March 13 and are not due to open again until September. However, some have criticised the Government for not considering reopening in June, while others have hit out at the lack of guidance on how schools will reopen in September, particularly if the two-metre social distancing rule still applies.
According to the this latest study, because children are thought to easily spread many respiratory diseases, including flu, it was assumed that they would also easily spread COVID-19.
"To date however, evidence of widespread paediatric transmission has failed to emerge," they noted.
They set out to examine this further in the Irish context. They identified three paediatric cases - one primary school student and two secondary students. They also identified three adults cases - one teacher and two adults who conducted education sessions in schools that were up to two hours in duration.
The available data indicated that none of these six cases had been infected in the school setting.
A total of 1,155 contacts of these six cases were identified. These were exposed in the classroom, during sports lessons, during music lessons and during choir practise for a religious ceremony that involved a number of schools mixing in a church environment.
The study found that among 1,001 child contacts of these six cases, there were no confirmed cases of COVID-19. In the school setting, among 924 child contacts and 101 adult contacts identified, there were no confirmed cases of COVID-19.
"Examination of all Irish paediatric cases of COVID-19 attending school during the pre-symptomatic and symptomatic periods of infection identified no cases of onward transmission to other children or adults within the school and a variety of other settings.
"These included music lessons (woodwind instruments) and choir practice, both of which are high-risk activities for transmission. Furthermore, no onward transmission from the three identified adult cases to children was identified," the study stated.
The researchers acknowledged that their study was limited by the small number of cases and the fact that not all age ranges were represented (all children were older than 10).
However, they noted that the study included all known cases with school attendance in the Republic of Ireland and the results "echo the experience of other countries, where children are not emerging as considerable drivers of transmission of COVID-19". These include studies from Iceland, Italy and Australia
"These findings suggest that schools are not a high-risk setting for transmission of COVID-19 between pupils, or between staff and pupils. The reopening of schools should be considered as an early rather than a late measure in the lifting of restrictions...There are no zero risk approaches, but the school environment appears to be low risk," the researchers concluded.
Details of their findings are published in the journal, Eurosurveillance.
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