Coronavirus school reopenings: What do the experts say?

Some primary years will return to school from June. Picture: Danny Lawson/PA Wire

Some primary years will return to school from June. Picture: Danny Lawson/PA Wire - Credit: PA

The Government’s plan to potentially start allowing children in reception, year one and six to return to school from June 1 has received mixed reactions.

Children abide by a traffic light system for social distancing when washing their hands. Primary pup

Children abide by a traffic light system for social distancing when washing their hands. Primary pupils could return to classes from June 1. Picture: Jacob King/PA Wire - Credit: PA

While experts agree that children tend to get coronavirus less severely than adults, little is known about how infectious they are.

Scientists also agree that testing and tracing is vital in order to further ease lockdown restrictions.

Paul Hunter, professor in medicine at the University of East Anglia. Picture: UEA

Paul Hunter, professor in medicine at the University of East Anglia. Picture: UEA - Credit: Archant

But what do they say about the safety of opening schools?

What are the risks?

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Mark Woolhouse, professor of infectious disease epidemiology at the University of Edinburgh, said there are three main risks associated with children returning to school: the risk to children, the risk to teachers, and of transmission in the community increasing.

Speaking as an independent researcher, and not in an advisory role, he said: “Covid-19, though a very unpleasant virus, and capable of causing illness, on occasion in any age group, in fact, is very, very very rarely a serious problem in children.

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“Staff are of course adults so they are more vulnerable to infection, more vulnerable to symptomatic infection.”

Prof Woolhouse said he knows of no evidence that suggests school staff are at greater risk in the workplace that any other adult in a workplace.

Will allowing some children to return to school increase community transmission?

Prof Paul Hunter, from UEA’s Norwich Medical School, who was involved in research into the success of different coronavirus measures across 30 European countries, said: “Our study shows that school closures in Europe had the greatest association with a subsequent reduction in the spread of the disease.

“But this study does not resolve the lack of consensus about whether children can pass Covid-19 to adults. And it does not identify which level of school closure has the most impact; whether it is primary, junior, senior school or even higher education.”

Prof Woolhouse said it is “definitely a possibility” that opening schools may cause the R rate to increase in the community.

He explained: “I think the bottom line is until we’ve sorted out this business of whether children do pass on the virus or not, we can’t be sure how much R will go up, but it’s possible, it goes up by a lot less than we currently think.”

What effect will social distancing have in schools?

Michael Tildesley is an associate professor at Warwick University who sits on a panel within the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), said school reopenings need to happen with social-distancing measures in place where possible, even if the children are not transmitting Covid-19.

He explained: “I think, overall, probably the risk to the average teacher of mixing with children is low, but I think we’re in a situation at the moment where I would never go and advise in the current climate that we shouldn’t put social-distancing measures in place as we’re reopening.”

Dr Lucy Wenham, lecturer of education at the University of Bristol, said the measures may prove difficult to enforce with very young children, and could also also be traumatic.

She said: “I don’t want to say, it’s child abuse, but it seems it’s a very, it’s a traumatic thing to put children through.”

Should school staff be given Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)?

Dr Tildesley said it might make a difference, but the evidence is not necessarily strong enough yet to suggest that should be advised for all teachers.

Prof Woolhouse said: “If you take the extreme view that children really don’t pass on this infection very much, it’s probably more important for the teachers to wear PPE and stop them spreading it to children, rather than the other way around.

“I would argue the teachers need more protecting than the children.”

Is there an educational argument for sending reception and year one children back to school in June?

Dr Wenham said she cannot understand the motivation behind starting with the youngest pupils.

She said: “You can think well we begin with socialisation and language development and reading all these things are developed at a very early stage. But is a month going to make that much difference?”

Geoff Barton, a former headteacher in Bury St Edmunds, and general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, has argued that older pupils more able to social distance should have been amongst the first to return.

He said: “This could be particularly beneficial for pupils in year 10 and year 12 because they are studying GCSE and A-level courses respectively, and for pupils in year 6, who are due to go to secondary school in September.”

Dr Wenham those in years six, 11 and 13 were missing out on the rite of passage of leaving school. She added: “The summer holidays are looming, so it seems a massive health risk for very little educational gain.”


Headteachers and the Norfolk representative of the biggest teachers’ union are set to join parents for a virtual video debate of the reopening of schools.

With reception, year one and year six pupils set to return to school from June 1, how schools can operate successfully and whether parents feel safe sending their children will be discussed at our latest Open House debate, taking place online via video conferencing platform Zoom from 11am on Friday, May 22.

Those taking part will include Binks Neate-Evans, executive principal at Bignold Primary, Angel Road Junior and Angel Road Infant; Sarah Shirras, head at St Williams Primary, Norwich, and Mel Fearns, head of St George’s Primary in Great Yarmouth. Scott Lyons, district secretary of the NEU for Norfolk, will give a teacher’s perspective.

Parents are being invited to join the debate too. You can register in advance for the webinar by CLICKING HEREAfter registering, you will receive a confirmation email containing information about joining the webinar.

Alternatively if you wish to take part, please email

MORE: Everything you need to know about school reopenings

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