Publication - Minutes

Coronavirus (COVID 19): Advisory Sub-Group on Education and Children’s Issues minutes: 6 April 2021

Published: 26 Apr 2021
Date of meeting: 6 Apr 2021
Location: Held virtually

Minutes from the twenty fifth meeting of the COVID-19 Advisory Group held on 6 April 2021.

Published:
26 Apr 2021
Coronavirus (COVID 19): Advisory Sub-Group on Education and Children’s Issues minutes: 6 April 2021

Attendees and apologies

Advisory Group members:

  • Prof Carol Tannahill (Chair)
  • Prof Brigid Daniel
  • Prof Marion Bain
  • Dr Eileen Scott
  • Gaenor Hardy
  • Gayle Gorman
  • Iona Colvin
  • Dona Milne
  • Prof Ian Rivers

Apologies:

  • Prof Aline-Wendy Dunlop
  • Prof Chris Chapman
  • Prof Devi Sridhar
  • Prof Paul Flowers
  • Prof Sheila Rowan

SG (observing):  

  • Audrey MacDougall
  • Elizabeth Sadler
  • Paul Fagan
  • Daniel Kleinberg
  • Simon Mair

Secretariat:

  • Elizabeth Morrison
  • Judith Tracey
  • Frank Creamer

Items and actions

Welcome

The meeting was chaired by Carol Tannahill. The Chair welcomed members to the meeting. The Chair informed the meeting that Professor Aline-Wendy Dunlop would be stepping down from the sub-group for reasons of ill health. The Chair thanked Professor Dunlop for her enormous contribution to the work of the sub-group and said that her input would be sorely missed. The other members of the sub-group concurred. The Chair also thanked Frank Creamer for his excellent support as part of the secretariat to the sub-group, as he was moving on to a new role within Scottish Government.

The Chair congratulated Devi Sridhar and Ian Rivers on their appointment as Fellows of the Royal Society of Edinburgh.

Minute of meeting on 23 March

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

Review of evidence

The sub-group considered the latest data on the state of the epidemic. The Chair mentioned that the data and surveillance task and finish group had met the previous week to consider the latest data, and confirmed that it had seen nothing to suggest that the full return to school could not proceed as planned after the Easter break. The number of new cases of COVID-19 had decreased by 7% over the week to 28 March, with R remaining between 0.8 and 1.0. The number of patients in hospital and ICU had continued to decline, and registered COVID related deaths had decreased by 8% in the week to 28 March. The overall number of cases across child age groups was stable, and test positivity had decreased across all child age groups in the week to 28 March. The uptake of vaccinations remained high, with 54.2% of Scotland’s adult population having received their first dose of the vaccine as of 31 March.

The sub-group was content that the latest data on the state of the epidemic supported the planned return to full-time in-person school-based learning, and noted that the impact of the return would have to be monitored closely in order to identify and limit any outbreaks that might occur. The sub-group believed that the current public health strategy of “go hard and go early” is working, although it did at times mean that considerable numbers of pupils may be required to self-isolate. This should also be kept under review.

Mitigations

The sub-group considered whether, as part of the preparations for a full return to school, there should be any change to the advice it had provided previously on mitigations to minimise transmission during the phased return to in-person learning, beyond the relaxation of the strict requirement for two metre distancing between young people in secondary schools. The sub-group’s view was that, wherever possible, 2 metre distancing should be maintained.  In situations where two metre distancing cannot be maintained, other mitigations become increasingly important, and would need to be adhered to strictly.  

There was some discussion of whether there should be a tiered approach to mitigations going forward, reflecting the levels in the updated Strategic Framework. The sub-group advised that it would need to assess the impact that the full return to school was having on case numbers and transmission before considering moving to a levels approach to mitigations; three weeks’ data would be required to assess that impact effectively.

The sub-group also discussed the use of face coverings in schools and the possibility of reducing use as we move through the levels, if the evidence allows.  

Action:

  • in order to inform any future discussion, the secretariat will work with colleagues in Covid Ready Society to pull together a paper on existing evidence and advice on face coverings

The sub-group also discussed the need to align any future easing of restrictions on e.g. physical education with the wider easing in the community, and agreed that it would continue to review the impact and experience of the full return to school before any further decisions could be made about the safe resumption of indoor practical subjects such as physical education, singing, music, and drama.

There was some concern that, at present, there are a number of mitigations which limit the capacity of ELC settings which, in turn, reduces the number of children who can access ELC and/or the amount of ELC they can access.  The sub-group felt that, as ELC settings returned fully on 22 February, there should be enough data to enable the sub-group to consider whether it might be appropriate to review these mitigations, with a view to relaxing those which most directly affect capacity and access to services.

Action:

  • SG to prepare a paper with the appropriate data on the impact of the ELC return, along with proposals for changes to the mitigations, to be considered by the sub-group by correspondence

The sub-group was also concerned about the impact of the restrictions on the most disadvantaged and vulnerable children and young people. It would be helpful to consider ways in which open and honest conversations could be held with young people about the impact that lockdown has had on them, and about how that affects their behaviour both in and out of school. This may be a more collaborative approach to ensuring better adherence to the required mitigations as schools return.  

Action:

  • CERG communications group to be asked to consider how best to hold such conversations with young people. Dona Milne will also take this to Directors of Public Health

Ventilation

The sub-group considered the use of CO2 monitoring equipment, and whether it was a practical addition to the mitigations already in place within the school estate to support the identification of areas of poor ventilation.

In discussion, the following points were made: 

  • CO2 monitors may provide a useful additional tool to identify poorly ventilated areas of school buildings, but they have to be part of an overall package including greater understanding of ventilation within the building
  • there is no evidence that the use of CO2 monitors will have an impact on transmission, but they could help to assess how to use the space in a school effectively, and to identify areas where there is not enough fresh air circulating
  • in terms of reducing the risk of transmission, the focus should be to introduce as much fresh air as possible, such as through windows or vents
  • too much reliance on CO2  monitors could provide a false sense of security, but they should be factored into the individual risk assessments within schools
  • the evidence base is limited at the moment, but the HSE is involved in some  studies going on in England to establish transmission patterns in workplaces and transport
  • SG and ES should consider options for a pilot study in Scotland, possibly utilising schools which are already using CO2  monitors
  • the sub-group stressed the continued importance of ventilation and using outdoor learning as much as possible as schools move into the summer term and the weather improves

Action:

  • SG and Education Scotland to consider options for a pilot study on the use of  CO2 monitors in schools in Scotland. The information from the pilot study should be put together with the studies in England, so that the sub-group can provide clear advice for schools in advance of the autumn term, when the weather will be changing and opening windows for the purpose of ventilation may not be as practicable

Wastewater

The sub-group discussed the option of utilising wastewater data to determine levels of COVID-19 in school and ELC settings.  SEPA, working in conjunction with Scottish Water and Public Health Scotland, has formed a monitoring network across Scotland for the purpose of analysing wastewater samples to determine the level of COVID-19 infection markers present.  This then provides data on the prevalence and distribution of the virus within Scotland.  

The sub-group was interested in looking more closely at the ability of wastewater monitoring to provide an early warning of potential outbeaks in schools, as well as providing an additional layer of data on the distribution of the virus. 

Action:

  • the secretariat to invite colleagues to speak to the sub-group (and other interested colleagues) at a standalone meeting to look specifically at the issue of wastewater monitoring, with a view to establishing a pilot study of its efficacy as an early warning system at a school level

Date of next meeting

The next meeting will be held on 20 April, and will focus on the impacts of the pandemic on children and young people, and the implications for  recovery.

Action:

  • sub-group members to provide the secretariat with any thoughts on what should be considered at the meeting on 20 April in terms of education recovery