Brace for impact: Reopening schools will cause spike in cases but we must do it

We must hold our nerve as State reaches critical phase in its reopening plan

Transition year students wear face masks and use a hand sanitizer before entering a classroom on their first day back at school at Mount Sackville Secondary School in Chapelizod.  Photograph: Alan Betson/The Irish Times

Transition year students wear face masks and use a hand sanitizer before entering a classroom on their first day back at school at Mount Sackville Secondary School in Chapelizod. Photograph: Alan Betson/The Irish Times

 

We’ve reached a seminal moment in the fight against Covid-19: the reopening of schools. Will it lead to an increased rate of infection? Yes.

Will it result in school closures and the return of remote learning in some cases? Yes. Anyone who thinks otherwise is fooling themselves.

The insidious nature of the disease – the fact that it is transmitted under a veil of asymptomatic carriers – makes containment extremely difficult, and eradication next to impossible without a lockdown of gargantuan proportions, one that comes with too big an economic risk to the State. There is no alternative but to reopen society gradually while dousing fires where they occur.

There was a perception at the outset that we could lock down and reopen in discrete phases with the disease kept at bay, but that’s proved impossible. What we’re getting instead is a messy in-between. Some people back at work, others in limbo. Some sectors reopened, others closed or partially open, while case numbers tick up and down sporadically. Throw in a lockdown-fatigued public and a Govermment in disarray and the road ahead looks decidedly bumpy.

The reopening of schools has been the singular objective of policymakers for months. Everything else – the reopening of bars, concerts, sporting events – has been put on the back-burner to facilitate this move. The risk is significant.

Strict protocol

There are about one million students and 100,000 teaching staff going back into circulation– on transport, in the classroom – in the next week. That’s an exposure event of unparalleled proportion, one that we and most countries haven’t attempted since the initial lockdown.

And it’s coinciding with a resurgence in cases and predictions that autumn will bring a second wave.

Coronavirus cases have been reported in 41 schools in Berlin just two weeks into the new school term. In percentage terms, that’s 5 per cent of the city’s 825 schools. Authorities there have confirmed that hundreds of teachers and students have now been forced to quarantine after the outbreaks.

They also said students from all school age groups have been affected, suggesting no one group was more at risk than others.

It’s unlikely we’ll avoid this type of scenario, but we can’t afford to panic or indulge in nonsense like anti-mask wearing protests.

The focus, from here on in, must be on the strict adherence to safety protocols in schools – that means changes to transport, classroom layouts, break times and extra-curricular activity – and beefing up our testing and tracing infrastructure.

A study conducted by researchers at the University College London (UCL) to assess the amount of testing and tracing needed to stop the virus rebounding as society eases restrictions provides an insight into how good the system needs to be.

The research found that if all children in the UK return to school by early September, as is currently planned, and almost three-quarters of people return to workplaces, the UK would need to be testing 75 per cent of symptomatic covid-19 cases to stay on top of the spread of the virus.

Similarly, the proportion of their contacts traced would also have to jump to 68 per cent. I wasn’t able to ascertain where we stand on these metrics, but the research suggests a high bar neeeds to be set.

Being able to support 260,000 workers via the Pandemic Unemployment Payment and a further 370,000 via the Temporary Wage Subsidy Scheme suggests there is ample financial resources available to the State to build a world class testing and tracing system. In other words, there is no impediment for us not to have one.

Advantage

The countries that prove proficient in this area are going to have the best outcomes in terms of health and economics. Hypotheticals like a vaccine or concepts such as herd immunity are either too uncertain or too nebulous to consider or tie into state policy at this stage.

And there is no reason why we can’t have 100 per cent testing and tracing in schools, whereby all contacts are traced. Schools have a distinct advantage over businesses in this area as staff and students are more likely to be contained, and schools are familiar with dealing with disease outbreaks.

The positive takeaway from the recent pick-up in cases is the fact that hospital admissions have remained low, with the number of patients in the system averaging around 20 over the past two weeks.

This is partly explained by the fact that more young people who don’t need hospital care are contracting the virus – 68 per cent of the 200 cases reported on Saturday August 15th involved those under the age of 45.

It may also indicate that older people or those in high-risk groups are continuing to cocoon or take precautions. That may have to remain the status quo for a time.

The negative with having more younger people testing positive is that turnaround times for tracing contacts is slower, as younger people tend to have bigger social networks. In some instances, up to 50 individuals are having to be traced from a single positive case, the Health Service Executive (HSE) reported last week.

The HSE also said it had seen a “significant rise” in community testing referrals in the past month, from 6,000 per week five weeks ago to 22,000 per week now.

As a result, more testing locations with extended opening hours have been set up, while additional resources have been allocated to contact tracing. There are currently 60 staff carrying out the process.

There’s really no excuse for low-balling this arrangement. So much else depends on it.

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