Under current plans, schools in England will be asked to welcome some pupils back at the start of next month.
But as FactCheck reported this week, parents, headteachers and local councils are not compelled to follow the advice.
Two reports out today – one from SAGE and another from the unofficial “Independent Sage” group – consider whether and how it might be safe to reopen schools in England. Neither analysis claims to offer the final word – but here’s what they tell us.
‘Independent Sage’ report says 1 June is too soon
A group of experts led by the former Chief Scientific Adviser, David King, says it’s not yet safe to reopen schools on 1 June.
The team, known as the Independent Sage committee, is not officially linked to the government and should not be confused with the Scientific Advisory Group on Emergencies (SAGE), which advises ministers.
Today’s Independent Sage report says we need low infection rates in the community and local test, track and trace operations must be able to “rapidly respond” if pupils are to return. The researchers say: “There is no clear evidence that these conditions are met. Until they are it is not safe to open schools on June 1.”
Delaying a school reopening by two weeks “approximately halves the risk to children”, this analysis suggests – though the risk to children is extremely low overall.
Even if schools open on 1 June, the experts estimate the chance of a child dying from coronavirus to be about 1 in 4 million. FactCheck has looked in more detail about the risks children face from the coronavirus – you can read our analysis here.
Could opening schools increase infections among adults? The King report says: “Where there are ongoing new infections within the community, evidence suggests that reopening schools could increase the spread of the virus”. But also that “other evidence from Asia […] suggests that school closures have little impact on the rate of transmission”.
The researchers note that there have been reports of more infections after schools reopened in France, South Korea and Denmark. But they say it’s hard to tell whether these are due to infections within schools themselves – or because lockdown restrictions more generally have been lifted in these countries.
What about school staff? The King report says: “Even if there are very few new infections within schools, this could still be risky for some adults who come into contact with infected children”. Local-level data on infections is important – the researchers say they will release more analysis on this next week.
SAGE advice from April favoured half-on half-off return
Separately, the government has published advice that was prepared ahead of the official SAGE committee meeting on 30 April (so we should bear in mind that it is not necessarily an up-to-date picture of the experts’ current thinking).
This analysis looked at the various options for reopening schools: from shutting them altogether to bringing back all pupils as usual, and many permutations in between.
This report is very heavily caveated throughout. The researchers are at pains to point out that there are many uncertainties and that they are looking at the relative merits of each option.
They appear to favour “option 7b” – in which classes are split in two, with children attending on alternate weeks. The analysts said this option had “not initially” been put forward by the Department for Education, but that it “emerged from the joint discussions as having particular potential merit for further consideration”.
However, the experts also note that “although the choice of scenario for relaxing school closures is of importance, a more critical issue is adherence to existing measures elsewhere in the community”.