Schools ‘can be safe’ from next week – expert

Increased ventilation, tests and masks can mean that schools can reopen safely, one expert said.

Children being taken to school
Children being taken to school

Schools can reopen “safely” from next week with the package of measures set out to mitigate risks from Covid-19, one expert has said.

Calum Semple, professor of outbreak medicine and child health at the University of Liverpool, said that increased ventilation, tests and mask wearing will all contribute to safe reopening of schools next week.

But one school leader said that increased testing for secondary and higher education pupils would mean that next week will be more “transitional”, with the week commencing March 15 looking “as normal as it might do”.

The Government has laid out plans for secondary school and college students to be tested twice a week.

But as they return to school they will receive three initial tests at school or college before transitioning to twice weekly home testing.

The Government has confirmed twice-weekly testing for all families and households with primary, secondary school and college-aged children and young people.

Primary school children will not be regularly tested.

Prof Semple, who is also a member of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), said that after children have performed Covid-19 tests under supervision, they “get used to it”.

“Perhaps we’re generating a new group of scientists in the process,” he added.

He told BBC Breakfast the package of measures – increased ventilation, masks and tests – mean schools “can be safe”.

He added: “The good news is we’re finding quite low rates of active infection within the schools.

“We’re using the lateral flow antigen tests that identify those children that are most likely to be infectious – and about 1.2% of school pupils are testing positive and about 1.6% of staff are testing positive.

“It is really low in most occasions – sometimes in some areas it’s down to 0.4%.

“So, as a game-changer, it is giving confidence that schools are safe.”

Meanwhile, Geoff Barton, from the Association of School and College Leaders, said that testing could mean that secondary school openings are “staggered”.

He told the programme: “I think for secondaries you’ve got the issue of the testing, which means there is inevitably going to be a bit of a staggered start because those young people won’t be able to go into their classroom until the first of those tests has been done.

“Over the first two weeks they need three of those tests and then the responsibility moves back to the home.”

Asked when it will be that most pupils will be in schools, he said: “It’s not going to be on March 8 in the majority of schools – part of this comes down to what is their school site like? How much space they have got, (you have heard of) drama studios and sports halls being taken out of action in order to be used for testing, some schools will be more constrained than others in terms of that.”

Mr Barton added: “If we see next week for secondary and further education as a transitional week of starting to bring them back into school, starting to teach them how the testing works, the week after that, starting the 15th, is going to look as normal as it might do.”

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