At the peak of the virus, as many as 1.6bn learners worldwide were out of school © Dan Kitwood/Getty

Be the first to know about every new Coronavirus story

Could try harder. That is a fair end-of-term appraisal of governments in the UK and US. They have insisted schools will reopen in the autumn yet failed to show parents and teachers how it can be done in a way that minimises risk, as has been achieved in other countries.

Schools have been a critical link in national lockdowns: children, adorable though they universally are, function as germ factories with a suboptimal sense of personal space and hand hygiene. Packing them into classrooms and emptying them at regular intervals into narrow corridors to roar at each other does not seem a wise strategy with a respiratory virus on the rampage. Closing schools further cuts transmission by keeping parents out of workplaces and off public transport. At the peak, nearly 1.6bn learners worldwide were out of school.

But the downsides of shuttering classrooms have since become clear: missed education, child hunger, unchecked domestic abuse, skipped vaccinations, lost parental income and a widening attainment gap between wealthy pupils and their poorer peers. In a letter last month to UK prime minister Boris Johnson, more than 2,500 specialists in child health warned that closures “risk failing a generation”.

A combination of research on transmission and evidence from countries that cautiously opened classrooms can guide policy on how to reopen without sparking infection surges. One insightful analysis, published this month by the journal Science, found that keeping the rate of community infections low is key. Other factors include pupil age, distancing, class size and masks. 

The most important question is whether schools put children directly in harm’s way. Encouragingly, all the evidence suggests they escape serious illness: they are about half as likely as adults to be infected and, if they are, generally suffer milder symptoms. A widely reported, serious Covid-19-related inflammatory syndrome is thankfully rare and treatable if caught early. 

The other critical question is whether kids can transmit the virus onwards, to teachers, other staff, parents and the wider community. An early-release study from South Korea, published in the journal Emerging Infectious Diseases but still subject to change, suggests children under 10 are substantially less likely as adults to spread the virus in their household, perhaps because they are shorter and exhale less. But the same study, tracing 59,000 contacts of around 5,700 Covid-19 patients, points to young people aged 10-19 spreading the virus more readily than most adults. Even though the study was conducted while schools were closed, it hints that teens might pose a bigger transmission risk than younger students, perhaps due to body size and more time spent with friends.

What has happened in countries that have reopened? Smaller class sizes of 10-15, plus social distancing, have enabled Norway and Denmark to welcome back younger pupils without triggering a spike, according to a survey by the University of Washington, which lists measures taken by 15 countries. Educators, though, dislike the way distancing restricts social interactions. One compromise is to have “pods” allowing children to mix freely in small, designated groups. Quebec reportedly plans to reopen high schools in autumn by operating pods of six pupils. Each will stay one metre away from other pods and two metres away from teachers. 

Masks, meanwhile, are compulsory in schools in Taiwan, South Korea, Vietnam and Japan, except for at mealtimes. Israel asks pupils to wear masks but does not enforce distancing — and has experienced outbreaks. Germany also mandates masks, though not for students who test negative. In regions of moderate transmission, Germany has seen cases of increased spread among students but not school staff.

Some online teaching, outdoor lessons, rotas and use of spaces such as community halls, have also been in the mix in various countries. Other considerations include risk assessments and protective equipment for teachers and ventilation, given suspicions over airborne transmission. Surprisingly, Sweden, which has kept some schools open throughout, has not systematically collected data. Public Health England began a surveillance project in June across nursery, primary and secondary schools in the hope of understanding prevalence and transmission.

Ultimately, any successful reopening relies on low community infection rates and scaled-up testing and contact-tracing, which depends on national leadership. The more virus there is in the community, the higher the probability that a child, or a teacher, will ferry it into school. Nimble testing and contact-tracing — and the flexibility to close schools if needed — offer the chance of controlling spikes. 

It is essential to find a route out of this educational stasis because, realistically, we might be living with Covid-19 for years to come. Unlocking schools, as with any other sector, will never be risk-free but our own treasured little germ factories need to keep learning so they can thrive in the coronavirus era, however long it lasts.

Get alerts on Coronavirus pandemic when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2021. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window)

Follow the topics in this article