COVID-19: Day 139: Are we ready to re-open schools?

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Where are we now? 

We are now in the end-part of the first phase of the Corona virus 2020 tour of the UK.

The graph of ‘deaths in all settings’ is shown above. Today (day 139) the trend rate of deaths is roughly 350 deaths-per-day, and it is falling at about 125 deaths-per-day every week.

If the linear trend continued the death rate would fall close to zero deaths-per-day in mid-June. It is more likely that the rate of decline of the death rate will flatten off into a long tail as shown in the UK projection from Worldometer below.

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Additionally, random testing amongst the UK population during the period 1 May to 10 May (day 121 to day 130). During this period researchers concluded that roughly 1 in 400 individuals were actively ill with COVID-19). This specifically excluded people with direct links to care homes or hospitals.

Full Re-opening of Schools

By 1st June the prevalence of sick individuals amongst the population is likely to have fallen further – it will probably be in the region of 1-in-1000 across the country.

At the 1-in-1000 level, with appropriate precautions, a large number of activities become very low risk. Why? Because the chance of meeting an infected individual is low, and social distancing means that even if an individual is infected, the chance that they will infect you is low.

But not all activities are low risk. And schools, where groups of roughly 1000 individuals gather joyously together, are one such place.

Schools contain people who are likely to practice social distancing only imperfectly. They also contain large numbers of shared touchable surfaces (hand rails, door knobs, gym equipment, laboratory kit, taps etc).

If schools re-opened fully on 1st June (Day 152 of 2020), then it would be more likely than not that every large school would contain an infected individual.

Personally, I would not consider this acceptable. Fully re-opening with a prevalence of infected individuals around the 1-in-1000 level would virtually guarantee that every school would seed new outbreaks that could then affect vulnerable people. When these inevitably occurred, the school would need to be shut in any case.

By September (another 92 days on from June 1st), with good fortune and continued efforts, the projection above indicates that the population incidence of corona virus might conceivably be more than 100 times lower (10 in a million). At this rate only 1 in 100 schools would be likely to contain an infected individual.

At this level, I think it would be possible to safely re-open schools with minimal risk and minimal precautions. One would probably seek to segment the population into smaller groups to enable contact tracing and isolation when the inevitable cases did occur.

Government Plans for 1st June

The government plan a partial school re-opening on 1st June. This will involve only between one quarter and one third of school places being filled. This reduces the chance that a school will contain an infected individual such that we could reasonably expect one infected individual in only every three or four schools.

Is that rate low enough? Personally I think not. And a Minister speaking in a pompous and condescending tone and implying that teachers do not have children’s interests at heart would not convince me. I doubt it convinces many teachers.

The judgment involves a balance of risks and benefits. As I see it:

  • The move would bring no benefit to the 67% to 75% of students who were not attending school.
  • For the 25% to 33% of the pupils who would attend, I would think there would  need to be some overwhelming and obvious benefit of the proposal in order to justify the extraordinary amount of trouble required to reconfigure schools. I don’t know what that benefit is nor how it could be delivered in 7 weeks.
  • At a population incidence of 1-in-1000, many schools would definitely harbour infected individuals, but the infrastructure for tracking and tracing people is not yet in place.

Personally, I think re-starting schools on 1st June has no overwhelming benefit. But at a population incidence of COVID-19 of 1-in-1000, it has many risks.

In September – if we all wash our hands and keep our distance – the population prevalence of corona virus should be low enough that near-normal operation of schools should be possible. And teachers and pupils can then focus mainly on teaching and learning. Wouldn’t that be nice :-).

 

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