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Irish-focused study finds no evidence that Covid-19 was transmitted in schools before government closures

The authors suggest that evidence of transmission among school children has yet to emerge.

A NEW STUDY of Irish Covid-19 cases has suggested that there is a lack of evidence to show that the coronavirus is transmissible in school settings.

The study by the journal Eurosurviellance found that there was no transmission of Covid-19 among children in Ireland’s schools before they were closed by the government on 12 March.

The authors suggested that the findings add to evidence that children do not appear to be drivers of Covid-19 transmission.

Arguing that reopening schools should be considered safe if accompanied by certain measures, they say that closures create childcare issues for parents, which has an impact on the workforce, and add to concerns about children’s physical and mental health. 

It comes amid a warning by Education Minister Joe McHugh that a “half return” to school may be needed in September if a 2m social distancing rule continued to be in force.

Under the government’s roadmap for lifting Covid-19 restrictions, schools will not open until September, while the Leaving Certificate and Junior Certificate exams have been cancelled.

“Children are thought to be vectors for transmission of many respiratory diseases including influenza,” the study notes.

“It was assumed that this would be true for Covid-19 also. To date however, evidence of widespread paediatric transmission has failed to emerge.”

However, the authors also said that their study is limited by its small sample size, that only symptomatic contacts were tested, and that asymptomatic secondary cases were not captured.

No cases transmitted

Although the first confirmed case of Covid-19 in Ireland occurred in a school-going child, the child had recently returned from northern Italy at the time they were found to have the virus.

Two other cases in children and three adult cases of Covid-19 with a history of school attendance in Ireland were also identified by the authors.

The study notes that epidemiological data for these cases indicated that none of these individuals contracted Covid-19 in a school setting.

“One case was travel related, while three cases were part of a single household outbreak, also linked to travel,” the authors write.

“One case was a close contact of a confirmed case in a recreational context, which was outside a school environment. One case was a contact of another case, and transmission occurred in a work environment.”

A total of 1,155 contacts of these six cases were identified in the study, including people exposed in classrooms, during sports lessons, music lessons and during choir practice for a religious ceremony, which involved a number of schools mixing in a church.

The authors said that of the 1,001 child contacts of these six cases, there were no confirmed cases of Covid-19.

Among 924 child contacts and 101 adult contacts identified in the school setting, there were also no confirmed cases of Covid-19.

“Prior to the nationwide closure of schools on 12 March, when a case was identified within a school, either all children and staff within the school or all children and staff involved with an individual case were excluded,” the authors said.

“This limited the potential for further transmission within the school setting once a case was identified.”

‘No zero risk approach’

In their conclusions, the authors suggest that reopening schools should be considered as an early rather than a late measure in the lifting of restrictions.

“While this study, based on small numbers, provides limited evidence in relation to Covid-19 transmission in the school setting, it includes all known cases with school attendance in the Republic of Ireland,” the study says.

“The results moreover echo the experience of other countries, where children are not emerging as considerable drivers of transmission of Covid-19.”

The authors add that although there are no “zero risk approaches”, the school environment appears to be low risk.

It follows a recent study of US schools by Johns Hopkins University, which found that studies of Covid-19 transmission in school to date indicate only offer limited scientific evidence, models, and anecdotal accounts.

The study suggests that there is still a lack of evidence around whether the re-opening of schools is safe, or whether doing so would lead to a resurgence of the virus.

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