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Data on infections in UK schools was ‘not transparent’, says the teachers’ union

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The union's research showed infections in the months before Christmas were high in schools, yet government said that teachers were not at an increased risk.


Coronavirus infections among teaching staff were up to four times higher than their local authority average last year, NASUWT figures reveal.

NASUWT, the Teacher’s Union requested data from several local authorities and multi-academy trusts in England through Freedom of information requests, to looks at average Covid prevalence rates (per 100,000 people).

The rate of positive cases among staff in Leeds, was 1,750.5 compared to 404.3 in the general population.  In Birmingham, the rate was 1027.2 cases compared to 312.2 cases circulating in the local authority. And in Greenwich, the rate among staff was 264 compared to 98 in the local authority as a whole.

Coronavirus infections among teaching staff were up to four times higher than their local authority average in the research from NASUWT. Photograph iStock

Data covered the six-week period beginning 12 October and ending 20 November 2020.

NASUWT General Secretary Dr Patrick Roach said: “It is clear from the data that far from schools being safer workplaces, staff in schools are at significantly higher risk of infection than the general population, which is not surprising given the lack of social distancing, PPE and other measures in schools.”

He accused the government of having suggested it is not in the public interest for important data on Covid-related issues relating to schools to be published. He said: “This lack of transparency is putting lives at risk.”

Young people ‘higher role in introducing infection’

Vaccines minister said in an interview on Tuesday with the BBC after the Prime Minister U-turned and shut schools: “Schools are safe, but they can act as vectors for this new variant which is much more transmissible in community settings.”

Unions have been insisting that schools are not safe for either teachers or for pupils who show high infection rates and can pass Covid onto families.

"The lack of transparency is putting lives at risk,” NASUWT has repeatedly warned the government. Photograph: iStock

“Bringing all pupils back into classrooms while the rate of infection is so high is exposing education sector workers to serious risk of ill-health and could fuel the pandemic,” said the statement from six unions representing teacher members.

Data shows that secondary school-age children have had high coronavirus rates since mid-October.

On 15 October, Sage was advising that “high levels of infection in children of secondary school age in requires further investigation” but that the evidence for the role of children in transmission within households is “mixed.”

On 4 November 2020 SAGE changed advice to say that children aged 12-16 play a “significantly higher role in introducing infection into households.” 

According to the REACT-1 community project between 13 November and 3 December around 1 in 50 secondary school age children (13-17 years) had Covid, compared with 94 per 10,000 people (or 0.5 out of 50) infected in the community in England.

"Schools are safe, but they can act as vectors for this new variant of coronavirus," the Vaccines minister said this week, in a confounding statement to the BBC. Photograph: iStocl

Sage advised on 22 December that it is ‘highly unlikely that measures which leaves schools open would be sufficient to maintain R below 1 in the presence of the new variant.’

School infections left out of official data?

The ONS, which is a governmental department, said in its infection survey bulletin, issued 6 November, that “there is no evidence of difference in the positivity rate between teachers and other key workers.”

However, in the same analysis it showed teachers in the category ‘of an unknown type’ had a Covid positivity rate of 0.51 per cent – 28 per cent higher than the key worker category and 16 per cent higher than other professions.

University of Cambridge academic Sarah Rasmussen highlighted this in her complaint published by Times Educational Supplement. She said the ONS had been ‘seemingly intentionally – misleading’: “The authors of this analysis almost certainly knew that this characterisation would be held up as evidence that teachers were not at any additional risk.”

The ONS responded on 26 November with a statement: “There was ‘no evidence of any difference’ within the survey. “This is not the same as saying that, ‘there is no difference’.”

More clarity for when schools re-open?

The ONS has been jointly working with the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM) on a study of Covid-19 infections in schools, which began in November. Two year groups were selected from 100 different secondary schools and 50 primary schools for the project. 

Professor Sinéad Langan, Co-Chief investigator, LSHTM said: "We need to understand if schools play an important role in the transmission of the virus that causes COVID-19."

Collegeague and Co-Chief investigator, Professor James Hargreaves, said: "We need more accurate information on how to minimise any risks of transmission in and around schools. This study will shed light on how to best to manage this in the most effective way."

All primary and secondary schools closed on 5 January.  

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