With Irish schools set to re-open in less than a month, and concern about the recent rise in the number of Coronavirus cases in the country, some welcome good news has emerged from an Australian study which suggests that the risk of virus transmission in schools is very low – as long as counter measures are employed. The lancet published the findings yesterday evening:
15 schools and ten ECEC settings had children (n=12) or adults (n=15) attend while infectious, with 1448 contacts monitored. Of these, 633 (43·7%) of 1448 had nucleic acid testing, or antibody testing, or both, with 18 secondary cases identified (attack rate 1·2%). Five secondary cases (three children; two adults) were identified (attack rate 0·5%; 5/914) in three schools. No secondary transmission occurred in nine of ten ECEC settings among 497 contacts. However, one outbreak in an ECEC setting involved transmission to six adults and seven children (attack rate 35·1%; 13/37). Across all settings, five (28·0%) of 18 secondary infections were asymptomatic (three infants [all aged 1 year], one adolescent [age 15 years], and one adult).
Two things to bear in mind here: First, the evidence is that the transmission rate is low, not that it is zero. It does not mean that if you send your child to school in August, they will not come home to you with the Coronavirus. It just means that the risk of that happening is lower than we might have feared.
Second, the low transmission rates are strongly linked to anti-pandemic measures being adopted in the schools. In fact, while the schools remained open in Australia, many pupils were told to stay at home:
The study period for index case identification was from Jan 25 (first NSW COVID-19 case notification) to April 9, 2020 (when the 10-week school term 1 ended and scheduled holidays commenced). From March 22, 2020, children were encouraged to stay home for distance learning until term 1 end; however, schools remained open if home schooling was not an option. The follow-up period for close contacts of COVID-19 cases extended to May 1, 2020.
The facts here are relatively simple: There is some evidence that re-opening the schools will not, by itself, lead to a massive explosion in the spread of the virus. But that is not the same thing as saying that the virus will not spread in school settings.
And the potential for problems in Ireland is still high, as we reported last week.