Welsh Government examining new scientific evidence around spread of COVID-19 among secondary schoolchildren
The Welsh government is looking at what further measures can be implemented in secondary schools to help control the spread of COVID-19.
A new report published by the government’s Technical Advisory Group (TAC) – who provide scientific and technical advice to ministers in Wales – points to higher levels of infection and transmission rates in secondary school age groups than first thought.
Since the start of term, nine of the 11 (81 per cent) of secondary schools in Flintshire have reported at least one COVID-19 case, which in most cases result in whole year groups having to self isolate.
Two cohorts – year 7’s and 8’s – at Hawarden High School are currently self isolating for 14 days after positive cases were reported towards the end of last week.
New measures recommended by TAC include the compulsory wearing of face coverings, including in class rooms and intermittent school attendance of year groups on a week or fortnight on /off basis.
The TAC group looked at new data from the Office of National Statistics (ONS) Covid surveillance study which indicates there “is now evidence of higher levels of infection and transmission in school based age groups than previously recognised.”
The updated study into COVID -19 rates amongst school related age groups across the UK has shown growth in the infection rate in all age groups under 18 since the end of August.
Rates were highest in older teenagers and young adults (year 12 and older, including Higher Education age groups).
The study also shows there is higher rate of asymptomatic transmission – from infected people who do not develop symptoms – and children are most likely to be the first case in a household.
In Wales between September 1 and November 11, there were 2402 reports of new COVID-19 cases across 742 both primary and secondary schools; 1076 cases in staff and 1326 in pupils – from a total of 1573 schools.
The figures represent 47.2 per cent of schools in Wales have had a COVID-19 case.
Latest Public Health Wales data shows that in the 21 day period to 11 November, 35 pupils and staff in Flintshire primary and secondary schools have tested positive for COVID 19.
TAC says: “Daily monitoring of cases in students and staff in Welsh schools since September showed consistently increasing cases in schools up to the reporting date of 26 October.”
“The majority of secondary schools had experienced a case at some time between September opening and 26 October, amongst staff or students. However fewer than half of primary schools had.”
The TAC reports states that “children’s and adults’ journeys to and from school and other extracurricular or wrap around activities and gatherings, gathering at school gates or at drop off and pick up points, shared lifts, use of school or public transport, increased inter-adult contacts such as return to work or greater social mixing, may all contribute to increased risk of transmission”
It goes on to say, “current analyses are unable to pin down the precise role of each interaction in transmission.”
TAC says that wearing face coverings for older age groups in more circumstances such as in classrooms on “a risk assessed basis, where effective social distancing cannot be maintained” should be considered.
In Wales, face coverings are recommended in secondary schools when social distancing is “unlikely to be maintained”, Welsh government stopped short of making it a mandatory requirement, meaning the final decision is taken at school or council level.
Flintshire council has “strongly recommended” that face coverings are worn by secondary pupils, where school risk assessments have identified.
Schools have strongly enforced the wearing of face coverings in corridors and in communal areas during break and lunchtimes but have not asked pupils to wear them in class.
It also says “Staff and students should be supported to understand the importance of controls on social mixing and reducing the number of daily face to face contacts, especially outside the controlled educational environment, to reduce risks of infection.
“Consideration should be given to exploring the feasibility of mass asymptomatic testing programmes in school and college settings to enhance infection control
and maintain confidence of students, parents and staff.”
“Staff and students should be supported to understand the importance of controls on social mixing and reducing the number of daily face to face contacts, especially outside the controlled educational environment, to reduce risks of infection.”
“This includes on journeys to and from schools, and during extracurricular activity or gatherings in formal and informal educational situations.” The reports says.
During Friday’s Welsh government press conference, Health minister Vaughan Gething made it clear that, “we’re really talking about teenagers, we’re not talking about primary schools.”
“There’s no reason to look again at where we are in primary schools on the on the state of the current evidence.”
He said the new evidence is going to lead to “conversations between scientific and medical experts and those with responsibility for the school environment to understand are there more control measures we can put in place.“
In terms of school staff, Mr Gething said they “are not a high risk professional group … the evidence isn’t that there are higher higher rates of infection within schools for adults who work there.”
The health minister said transmission within households is still the “biggest driver” of where infections are taking place but the are questions around infections taking place with “children mixing with other children in our secondary schools.”
Speaking to BBC Wales on Sunday, education minister Kirsty Williams said: “As we go through this pandemic our understanding of how this virus works is changing and developing.”
“The good news out of the TAC report is it reinforces the view that in terms of immediate risk if children contract the virus, they are unlikely to suffer significant harm.”
The minister said “it does seem that those (older) age group children do have a role in passing the virus around.”
She said its not clear from the new evidence whether the that’s because of school or because those children “generally have more contacts out of school, or doing more things in their social life.”
“What’s really important is that teachers are no more likely to have a positive coronavirus test than other frontline workers, but we need to see what other measures we can put in place in our school system to make it even more covid.”
“We’re looking whether there are more opportunities to use face coverings.”
Ms Williams said we are “looking to see whether there are further measures where we can reduce contacts but also communicating with young people and parents themselves.”
“As the report says, we do think that a lot of the spread is by outside social contact, outside that of the managed school environment, maybe journeys to school from school, or what happens in the evenings and on weekends.”
“We really need to reinforce to everybody the best way we can protect all of ourselves is by following the rules limiting contacts when we don’t have to meet with people and the usual hand hygiene, face covering advice that everybody’s very well aware of.”
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