Independent SAGE scientists call for ‘urgent action’ to make schools safe for staff and students

INDEPENDENT Sage is calling for urgent action to address escalating infection rates in schools as new figures show that more than 1 in 5 secondary school pupils are currently absent from school in England. There has been a 50-fold increase in cases of COVID-19 for 11-16 year olds since the start of September, and infections are now higher for this age group than any other. Infections in primary school children continue to rise. This is causing “severe disruption” to children’s education with 22% of children currently absent – moreover, the statistics supplied by the scientists show real cause for concern:

  • Infection rates are higher in secondary school pupils than any other age group with a 50-fold increase in cases among 11-16 year-olds since start of September
  • Education for older children is “severely disrupted”, with more than 1 in 5 secondary school pupils absent from school last week
  • Wide transmission circle of school children “can endanger parents and grandparents”, says panel of expert scientists

The Welsh Government has already this week taken steps to improve safety in this age group, with pupils and staff in all Welsh secondary schools and colleges now required to wear masks in all areas outside the classroom, including in the yard outside at break-time,  in canteens and on school transport.

Masks must also be worn by parents and carers dropping off and picking up children, however there is no change to the rules for masks in classrooms, which do not have to to be worn in classrooms with “bubble” contact groups and where social distancing is in place.

Teachers have been provided with ‘misleading information’, say scientists

Teachers have been given “misleading information” about the health risks and the risks of contact on school buses and in playgrounds has “not been adequately recognised”, according to the panel of expert scientists, chaired by former Chief Scientific Adviser Sir David King.

In a new consultation guidance document released today and produced in collaboration with the EAGLE research group for education, Independent SAGE sets out key recommendations to bring down infection rates in schools. Proposals include “blended learning” (a mix of on-site and home-based learning) for secondary schools in areas with high levels of infection; secondary school children to be encouraged to wear good quality face masks in classroom and elsewhere in school; smaller classes in primary schools; and better ventilation with warm clothing supplied to children in need.

The report also recommends that, where a positive case is identified in school, the bubble should form the basis for isolating contacts and self-isolation must not be restricted to children sitting next to each other or in sustained contact. All staff and students within a bubble should be tested where there are positive cases, regardless of whether they are showing symptoms. Staff who are clinically vulnerable should be enabled to work from home where possible.

In the interests of fairness and to reduce stress on pupils, Independent SAGE recommends that primary school tests be cancelled and secondary school exams replaced with assessment by teachers, with suitable moderation.

Secondary school students can be infected and infect each other and adults

“It is now clear that secondary school students can be infected and infect each other and adults, and this is at last acknowledged by the government’s official advisers in SAGE,” states the report. “Children and young people at school tend to have a wide transmission circle which can endanger parents and grandparents. Whilst wishing to minimise disruption to children’s education, stricter guidelines are urgently needed for reducing opportunities for infection.”

The report goes on to state that headteachers and staff have “frequently been denied key information and resources, and constrained by incoherent advice from central government,” and that the ban on schools rearranging holidays or switching to blended learning has exacerbated the problems. “The present situation in many of the worst affected schools and communities is characterised by confusion, secrecy, mistrust, fear, demoralisation and exhaustion. The situation is clearly not sustainable.”

Too many children in crowded, badly ventilated classrooms

Professor Stephen Reicher of the University of St Andrews said: “In the summer, the government effectively abandoned schools, requiring them to be safe but without providing the support or the resources to make this possible. As a result, far too many of our children are left in crowded, badly ventilated classrooms; infections have increased 50-fold since September; one in five students are off school; and all this is now putting the whole community at risk.”

He added: “The Government must acknowledge its error and change direction. We must act urgently to make schools safe. This crucial report provides a blueprint for exactly how that can be achieved.”

The guidance document has been written following consultations with headteachers, teachers, local authority officials, representatives of academy trusts, and parents.


About Independent SAGE:

Independent SAGE is a group of scientists who are working together to provide independent scientific advice to the UK government and public on how to minimise deaths and support Britain’s recovery from the COVID-19 crisis. Sir David King, the former Chief Scientific Adviser to the UK government, chairs the group and oversees its reports.