Schools are not a major driver of transmission of the Covid-19 virus, latest research from the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) suggests.
The risk of infection appears to be no higher in schools than other workplaces or leisure settings with similar densities of people, once appropriate control and prevention measures are in place, it found.
The COVID-19 in children and the role of school settings in COVID-19 transmission report is based on studies in 15 European countries, including Ireland and some countries where schools did not close or reopened after an initial closure.
The report takes on a key significance as the Government presses ahead with plans for a full return of Ireland’s 4,000 schools within the next three to four weeks, for the first time since March 12.
“There is conflicting published evidence on the impact of school closure/re-opening on community transmission levels, although the evidence from contact tracing in schools, and observational data from a number of EU countries suggest that re-opening schools has not been associated with significant increases in community transmission,” the report states
Overall, fewer than 5pc of COVID-19 cases reported in 31 EU/EEA countries and the UK have been in persons under 18 years of age.
According to the report, the role of children in transmission remains unclear, especially in the context of educational settings.
When symptomatic, children shed virus in similar quantities to adults and can infect others in a similar way to adults, it says.
However, it found that the “evidence available strongly suggests that transmission resulting in symptomatic infection of either children or adults is uncommon in schools.”
But in a cautionary note, it points to children being more likely to have a mild or asymptomatic infection—which may go undiagnosed or undetected - and it is not known how infectious asymptomatic children are.
Very few significant outbreaks of COVID-19 in schools have been documented, but the report states that they do occur and may be difficult to detect due to the relative lack of symptoms in children
While it found limited evidence to indicate that schools were driving transmission within the community, it notes indications of community transmission being imported into or reflected in the school setting.
The study looked at evidence of Covid-19 transmission between key groups and key findings include:
*child to child transmission in schools is uncommon and not the primary cause of infection in children whose onset of infection coincides with the period during which they are attending school, particularly in preschools and primary schools.
*children are not the primary drivers of transmission to adults in the school setting.
* while there is evidence of transmission from adults to children in household settings, there is little evidence of this occurring within the school setting.
*adults are not at higher risk within the school setting than the risk in the community or household.
Clusters in educational facilities were identified in several of the 15 reporting countries, however those that occurred were limited in number and size, and were rather exceptional events, the report states.
“Several countries specifically said that they had no indication that school settings played a significant role in the transmission of COVID-19. Secondary transmission in schools, either from child-to-child or from child-to-adult, was perceived to be rare.
”Countries where schools had re-opened by the time of the survey stated that they had not seen an increase in cases in these settings. Responses from the countries suggest that, so far, schools have not been a major outbreak environment for COVID-19 in the EU/EEA and UK.”
In its conclusions, the report states that available evidence indicates that closures of childcare and educational institutions are unlikely to be an effective single control measure for community transmission of Covid-19 and such closures would be unlikely to provide significant additional protection of children’s health, since most develop a very mild form of Covid-19, if any.
It also recommends that decisions on control measures in schools and school closures/openings should be consistent with decisions on other physical distancing and public health response measures within the community.
By the end of July, 21 of the 31 EU/EEA countries and the UK had reopened their primary schools and preschools at least partially, although in many countries school summer holidays were still ongoing.
Estonia, Finland, Iceland and Sweden never closed preschools and two never closed primary schools - Iceland and Sweden.