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

Published: 15 Jan 2021
Date of meeting: 6 Jan 2021

Minutes from the eighteenth meeting of the COVID-19 Advisory Group held on 6 January 2021.

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

Attendees and apologies

Advisory Group Members

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

Apologies

None

Public Health Scotland

  • Dr Diane Stockton

SG (observing)

  • Daniel Kleinberg,
  • Audrey MacDougall
  • Dr Julie Aitken

Secretariat

  • Elizabeth Morrison
  • Judith Tracey

Items and actions

Welcome

1. The meeting was chaired by Carol Tannahill. The Chair welcomed colleagues, noted that Devi Sridhar had intimated that she would join the meeting late, and that Aline-Wendy Dunlop would also have to leave the meeting at intervals.

2. The Chair advised the sub-group that the key points made at the extraordinary meeting held on 31 December had been put to the Deputy First Minister that evening, and had informed discussions over the weekend as well as the meeting of CERG on the morning of 4 January.  The advice from the sub-group that schools should remain closed beyond 18 January on a precautionary basis, and that there should be a fortnightly review of that decision, was seen to be timely, helpful and appropriate to the circumstances. 

CERG Meeting on 4 January

3. The sub-group was given an update on the discussion at CERG on 4 January about the advice that remote learning should continue for the majority of children and young people beyond 18 January.  There was recognition of the need for further evidence about transmission of the new virus among and by children and young people, and for clear guidance on the phased return to schools, including on the need for remote learning support and the issues around clinically vulnerable staff and pupils (updated guidance was published on 6 January.)

4. One issue which the sub-group needs to look at in more detail is the evidence required to decide when it will be appropriate to reopen schools more widely for face-to-face teaching (beyond vulnerable children and those of key workers.)  It will be important to have the most up-to date information on the new variant of the virus, particularly the data on transmission among and by children and young people, and on levels of community transmission.  It will also be essential to focus on what needs to be done to mitigate the worst impacts of school closures for the most vulnerable families.

Evidence review  

5. The sub-group was given an update on the latest Public Health Scotland data on COVID-19 as it relates to education and children.  The rate for all Scotland was 268.5 per 100,000 in the week ending 27 December. The highest rates of COVID-19 cases in recent weeks were in the 20-24 year age group, with increased rates across all ages.  Of those who tested positive for COVID -19 in Scotland in the week ending 3 January 2021, 8% were in the 2-17 year-old age group.   However, it was important to note that much of the data (until 28 December) pre-dates the increase in the new variant of the virus in Scotland. 

6. In discussion, the following points were made:

  • Scotland is about 4 weeks behind London in terms of the transmission of the new variant of the virus and, as such, it was important to keep the data under review.  It will be a few weeks before we have sufficient data to demonstrate any impact the decisions made in Scotland in December have had on the prevalence of the virus.
  • The activities of children and young people when they are not in school will affect progress in suppressing the virus, and be reflected in the harms resulting from the measures.  The definition of ‘essential’ activities for leaving home needs to be emphasised.
  • We need to focus efforts on minimising the social and educational harms of school closures, and consider what can be done to support children’s wellbeing, learning and development and address inequalities, until we have sufficient evidence to enable decisions to be made about the longer term approach to a phased reopening of face-to-face schooling.
  • It is important to think about ages and stages, and not to take a blanket approach to school reopening.  It may be possible to reopen primary schools and ELC first, if the data suggests that these remain relatively safe in terms of transmission of the new variant.   
  • Increasing concern was also expressed about senior phase pupils, and the need for a long-term strategy for those groups was highlighted.
  • We must consider how to manage the need for children and young people to have ongoing social contact with their friends.  The mental health impacts of restrictions – particularly for adolescents – have been well documented.  There will need to be a  planned, community based, approach to managing these social interactions if online learning for secondary school pupils continues in the longer term.
  • Need to look at what will allow schools to reopen in a safe way, with the confidence of teachers and other school staff, pupils, and parents.  Increased testing, particularly in secondary schools, would enable outbreaks to be identified and managed quickly.  This will help staff, parents and young people to feel more confident about returning to school. It is important, therefore, that the work which was already underway to look at the logistics of testing in schools can continue apace while the schools are closed. 
  • Although vaccination does not fall within the remit of the sub-group, it needs to form part of the consideration of the wider issues around school reopening.

7. Action – Secretariat to commission a paper on testing for consideration at the next meeting. 

8. The sub-group was given an update on the latest research and modelling findings on COVID-19 .   The latest evidence from Imperial College, published on 31 December 2020 presents a consensus that the new variant has a substantial transmission advantage, with an increased rate of transmission estimated to be somewhere between 0.4 and 0.7 . The estimated percentage of cases composed of this new variant is increasing rapidly in Scotland, from 42.7% on 31 December to 47.5% on 3 January.  It is very likely that this strain will further increase in dominance in Scotland in a similar way to that already seen in London and SE England.

9. At the moment there is not enough evidence on transmissibility of the new variant with which to come to firm conclusions about its implications for schools, although it is clear that the new variant of the disease is significantly more transmissible than other strains.    At the moment, there is no scientific consensus as to whether the new variant has a greater impact on children and young people than previous variants.  There is also a lack of evidence to explain why this new variant is more transmissible.

10. There is also a great deal of uncertainty about the impact that closing and reopening schools has on the R (reproduction rate) and more data is required in order to understand this, and the basis for the increased transmissibility, before any further decisions can be made on the public health and wider social and educational measures required to combat it.

11. Action – sub-group to produce and publish an updated evidence report on children, schools, ELC and transmission by the end of January.

Future workplan for the sub-group

12. The Chair suggested that the implications of the new variant of COVID-19 meant that the sub-group would need to take a longer term perspective and consider the nature of a sustainable model of education in the context of living with COVID-19 until the Autumn.  Prolonged school closures do not represent  a sustainable approach to living with the virus, so it is important to consider what has been learned from the first national lockdown and how we use that to minimise the educational and social harms during this second period of school closure and throughout any potential phased approach to school reopening.

13. In discussion, the following points were made:

  • There are models already in use in the early years sector of collaborative working between various stakeholders including social work, child protection and ELC settings, in order to develop the best approach for vulnerable children.  It may be worth looking at this when considering how to minimise the known harms of missing face-to-face schooling for children and young people.
  • Education Scotland has pulled together and will publish a collection of stories about how practitioners across Scotland responded during the pandemic, which will provide practical examples of what worked well during the first lockdown.
  • The leadership group for children and families has also carried out a lessons learned exercise looking at the impact of lockdown on vulnerable families. This is being reviewed this week and will be shared with the sub-group.
  • It will be important to include the voice of teachers in this work, and that is one of the reasons why a teacher representative is being invited to join the sub-group.

14. Action – sub-group members to provide the Secretariat with any material about what has been learned, and any ideas for how to take this work forward. 

Date of Next Meeting

15. The next meeting will take place on Tuesday 12 January.