As a new term is set to start for schools across the UK and the government announces masks will return for secondary pupils in England’s classrooms, we take a look at the potential impact of Omicron on children.
How prevalent is Covid among children?
According to case data for the week to 27 December 2021 – which is based on infections picked up by testing – rates are currently highest among young adults. However, rates per 100,000 people are also high among children, at 1,126.5 for those aged 10 to 14, and 836.2 for those aged five to nine.
Further insights come from the latest data from the Office for National Statistics, based on swabs collected from randomly selected households, revealing that in the week ending 23 December infection levels in England were highest among those aged two to Year 6 and those aged 25 to 34, at about one in 15 people for both groups.
An estimated one in 20 of secondary school-aged children to Year 11 in England had Covid in the same week, compared with one in 45 of those aged 50 to 69 and one in 100 of those aged 70 and over.
Is Omicron more dangerous to children?
Early reports from South Africa raised concerns that may be the case. However, a preliminary analysis by the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) based on the situation in England has suggested a lower risk of hospitalisation among Omicron cases in school-age children compared with Delta cases.
While the findings are good news, experts have stressed some children can still become sick from Covid and require hospital care, while there are also concerns about the potential impact of long Covid.
Which children are eligible to be vaccinated against Covid?
Two doses of the Covid jab have been recommended for all those aged 12 to 17 in the UK, with some offered an additional jab, for example if they are severely immunosuppressed. A booster dose has recently been announced for all 16- to 17-year-olds and some children aged 12 to 15, such as those who are in a clinical risk group.
Last month the UK’s Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) said that two Covid jabs would also be made available for clinically vulnerable five- to 11-year-olds, as well as those living with someone who is immunosuppressed. The doses will be a third of the quantity used for adults.
What about testing?
Educational staff and secondary school pupils in Scotland, Northern Ireland and England are asked to take two lateral flow tests a week, while in Wales they have been asked to take three.
“Testing remains voluntary but is strongly encouraged,” guidance from the Department for Education states, adding that secondary schools should also retain capacity to carry out asymptomatic testing on-site for pupils who are unable to test themselves at home.
Concerns have been raised about the availability of lateral flow tests, with those attempting to request kits online in recent days having repeatedly been faced with messages stating “no home delivery slots left”, and some pharmacies also running out. However, the education secretary, Nadhim Zahawi, has said schools will have their own supplies of lateral flow tests.
What other measures are in place in schools?
This varies from country to country. However, there are common approaches, including an emphasis on hygiene and sanitation.
On Saturday it was announced that secondary school pupils in England should return to wearing masks in classrooms, not just communal areas, a measure already in place in the other countries of the UK.
While Robert Halfon, the chair of the House of Commons education select committee, has raised concerns, including saying that there is very limited evidence of the efficacy of masks in educational settings, others have backed the measure, pointing out that while masks are not perfect, and their effectiveness depends on their quality, a number of studies have suggested mask-wearing in schools is linked to smaller increases in case rates and a lower likelihood of outbreaks.
Zahawi has also announced that nurseries, schools and colleges would be given 7,000 more air cleaning units in a bid to improve ventilation, a move the joint general secretary of the National Education Union, Mary Bousted, said would be “completely inadequate”.
Will schools have to close?
Zahawi has said he will do “everything in his power” to protect education. However, some experts have said more should be done.
“The fact that children [in England] who are household members of a case are mandated to come into school, and children sitting next to a case in a classroom are not even considered close contacts, suggests that policies are geared towards maximising transmission rather than protecting children and their families,” Dr Deepti Gurdasani, a clinical epidemiologist at Queen Mary University of London, told the Guardian.
Another key issue is staffing, given the level of absences because of Covid and self-isolation, with ex-teachers being encouraged to return – although there are doubts this will happen in time for the new term in England.
It seems likely that at least some teaching will be done remotely, with Zahawi urging schools to implement a flexible approach to learning where necessary, to maximise on-site education.