Coronavirus (COVID 19): Advisory Sub-Group on Education and Children’s Issues minutes: 23 February 2021

Minutes from the twenty first meeting of the COVID-19 Advisory Group held on 23 February 2021.

Attendees and apologies

Advisory Group Members

  • Prof Carol Tannahill (Chair)
  • Prof Sheila Rowan
  • Prof Chris Chapman
  • Prof Brigid Daniel
  • Prof Devi Sridhar
  • Prof Ian Rivers,
  • Prof Marion Bain
  • Prof Paul Flowers
  • Dr Eileen Scott
  • Gaenor Hardy
  • Gayle Gorman
  • Iona Colvin
  • Dona Milne


  • Prof Aline-Wendy Dunlop

Public Health Scotland

  • Dr Diane Stockton

SG (observing)

  • Daniel Kleinberg
  •  Mick Wilson
  • Dr Julie Aitken
  • Audrey MacDougall


  • Elizabeth Morrison
  • Judith Tracey
  • Frank Creamer

Items and actions


1. The meeting was chaired by Carol Tannahill. The Chair welcomed members to the meeting.     

Minute of meeting on 9 February

2. The minute was confirmed as an accurate record of the meeting.

Review of evidence

3. The sub-group considered the latest evidence on transmission and children, and the latest data on the state of the epidemic.  The evidence base about the role of children and young people in the transmission of COVID-19 continues to develop.  A study in Canada had demonstrated that mitigation measures reduced risk to acceptable levels in primary schools, particularly when community prevalence is low. Proactive testing of teachers and staff once or twice a week can help catch introductions early, before they spread widely through the school.  Evidence about the wider impacts of the pandemic and the related restrictions on children, young people and their families also continues to grow.

4. Recent data is providing early encouraging signs of a further reduction in case rates, even as the new variant becomes increasingly dominant in Scotland.  The 7-day rolling number of new cases has fallen substantially since early January.  COVID-19 NHS admissions and occupancy of ICU beds also continue to fall.  The R number remains between 0.7 and 0.9 in Scotland, and the uptake of vaccinations is very high. 

5. In discussion, the following points were made:

  • There is still a lack of information about the impact of the new variant on children and young people.
  • The best source of data on the new variant is that produced by Public Health England (PHE) and DfE as there are higher numbers of children and young people in school in England than in Scotland at the moment.
  • PHE is continuing to see a decline in confirmed cases in ELC settings and in primary and secondary schools.
  • In Scotland, the overall measures of occurrence of COVID-19 in children continue to decline, although the decline in cases and the rate of cases was not matched by a decline in test positivity.
  • Evidence from Denmark appears to show that the likelihood of clusters within school settings may be higher with the new variant.  However, this is just based on 2 schools, and may be due to the fact that schools are one of the few things open in Denmark at the moment.
  • It will be important to continue to consider any available intelligence relating to schools and ELC closures/reopening internationally.
  • It is crucial that the sub-group has a clear understanding of the data required to inform the sub-group’s advice on the next stage of the phased return to in-person learning.   

6.  ACTION – the secretariat will establish a small task and finish group to look at data and surveillance in more detail, which will meet and report back to the next meeting of the sub-group


7. The sub-group discussed the issue of cohorts and whether any change was required to the existing guidance which states that  “efforts should be made to keep children and young people within the same groups for the duration of the school day”.  The sub-group considered the practicalities of requiring smaller cohorts of children, particularly in secondary school.  Current evidence was that educational settings were managing the situation well, ensuring that children remain in consistent groups as far as possible to reduce the likelihood of direct transmission.  They are also producing seating plans to allow for quicker identification of those who need to self-isolate, which has helped to reduce the number of children, young people and staff who need to isolate in the event of a positive test.

8.  The sub-group decided to keep the situation under review and consider again after the next phase of return to in-person learning.

Outdoor education

9. The sub-group considered whether it would be appropriate to prioritise residential outdoor education centres, and other school residential visits for reopening, given the opportunities for educational, personal and social development that are unlikely to be delivered in other settings.

10. The sub-group was extremely cautious about opening up residential visits given the risks which had been highlighted in its previous advice on this issue.  Evidence from other countries backed up this caution, this included an outbreak of COVID-19 associated with an overnight camp in Georgia USA (where there were 351 cases identified, of which 339 were determined as being associated with attendance at the camp, despite a negative test taken within 12 days of arrival as was required as part of the mitigation measures in place).

11. Sub-group members commended the thoughtfulness of the planning which had been put in to ensuring a safe return to residential trips, and recognised the willingness to significantly adapt provision to mitigate the risk of virus transmission.  However, the point at which it might be possible to allow any school visits which involve an overnight stay depends on the trajectory of the virus. 

12. The sub-group recommended that it was worth planning ahead to allow these settings to reopen as soon as circumstances allow, and once we know more about the impact of the phased return to in-person learning. Given the consistent evidence that the risk of transmission outdoors is low, and the benefits of outdoor activity are well recognised, the sub-group was supportive of an increased emphasis on outdoor activity.  Day trips (without the residential element which was the biggest risk factor) should be the priority for resumption.  However, the sub-group did express concern about the travel arrangements for getting to venues and how that could be managed safely.  For that reason, it would be better to encourage local outdoor activity which could be accessed more easily from the school, youth work or ELC setting.

Date of Next Meeting

13. The Chair explained that there would need to be at least one additional meeting of the sub-group in order to produce advice to support the planning for the next phase of return to in-person learning.  There would be a meeting the following week and the next scheduled meeting for 9 March may have to be brought forward.  The secretariat would be in touch about revised meeting dates.

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