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Schools did not become ‘hubs of infection’ during third Covid wave, says study

Only 0.42% of secondary students tested positive in June

Covid case rates in schools were more than three times higher during the second wave of infections last autumn than during the fresh outbreak this year, a government-funded study has found.

The research, led by Public Health England (PHE), found that just 0.42% of secondary school pupils tested positive this June, compared with 1.48% in November 2020. And the infection rate among primary school children during the third wave was just 0.27%, down from 0.75%.

The analysis was based on swabs taken at 141 primary and secondary schools across England and strongly suggests that “classrooms have not become ‘hubs for infection’, like some experts and teaching unions feared”, says the Daily Mail.

“Latest results show that infection and antibody positivity rates of children in school did not exceed those of the community,” said Dr Shamez Ladhani, a consultant paediatrician at PHE who led the study in collaboration with the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM) and the Office for National Statistics (ONS). “This is reassuring and confirms that schools are not hubs of infection.”

There is now a “wealth of evidence from around the world that schools are not the main driver of Covid epidemics”, added infectious diseases expert Professor Mark Woolhouse of Edinburgh University, who sits on a Sage modelling sub-group. 

The latest study also “does not raise any immediate concerns about the reopening of schools after the summer holidays”, Woolhouse said.

The newly published analysis found that levels of infection among school staff were lower during the third wave as well. Only 0.27% of staff in secondary schools tested positive for Covid in June, “significantly lower than the autumn term 2020”, says the PHE report.

The executive agency attributes the decline to “school gate” measures including rapid and widespread asymptomatic testing, high vaccine uptake in school staff, social bubbles in classrooms, and the nationwide isolation system.

Study team member Dr Patrick Nguipdop-Djomo, a professor of epidemiology at LSHTM, said the results were “a testament to the huge amount of work done in schools to prevent and reduce the risk of Covid-19 transmission”.

Despite the positive data, the government is testing the use of “air purifiers and ultraviolet light” in schools as part of a “pilot scheme to tackle Covid in confined spaces”, the i news site’s education correspondent Will Hazell reports.

A total of 30 primary schools in Bradford are taking part in the government-funded research project, “which could be scaled up to operate nationwide depending on the evidence produced”, according to Hazell.

If successful, the scheme could deliver a “massive prize” in the fight against Covid, he adds, “while also cutting absences because of cold and flu and improving the air quality for pupils with asthma and hay fever”.

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