Social distancing has been a key measure in reducing the spread of COVID-19, as we can see from the high rates in Sweden, where it was not strictly enforced. The general consensus is that people should stay 2 meters (or 6.5 feet) away from each other to minimize the risk of passing on the virus, although a recent model suggested that infectious particles could spread further than this distance just from speaking.
One point of contention has been the reopening of schools during the pandemic. Young children are notoriously hard to control, with fears that letting them loose en masse in schools would contribute to a second wave. Concerns over transmission risk to teaching staff and those in the wider community have also been voiced. Despite this, there has been a considerable push to open up schools again. In the UK, schools shut from April to May 2020, with selected year groups and children of frontline workers returning to primary school on June 1, with a full re-opening in September. Between May 18 and July 31, 247 COVID-19 related incidents happened in UK schools, with 116 cases testing positive.
In a new study published in Royal Society Open Science, researchers from the University of Bristol assessed how contact in UK primary schools has changed since the pandemic hit, and found that measures to reduce the spread of COVID reduced close in-person contacts by 50-62 percent in young children.
They defined “contacts” as an interaction at a spacing of 1 meter (3.3 feet) or less, for five minutes or more. They used a method called structured expert judgment, with volunteers from the Royal Society Schools Network filling out a questionnaire. These volunteers were leaders and senior staff in primary schools, 33 of which were state schools and one of which was not.
The schools ranged in size from 65 to 910 students, with an average of 376 compared to the national average of 282. The schools were well spread around the country, with a mix of urban and rural locations.
Questions the volunteers were asked to answer included: “If you use bubbles please describe the number of pupils in a bubble and the approximate spacing between bubbles during class time”, “Please describe your strategy to reduce close contacts between pupils”, “What is your policy if a parent or another relative of a child contracts COVID19?”, and “How many people does a typical child come into face-to-face contact with (conversation within 1 m for 5 min or more) on a normal school day in a covid free world? / on a new normal school day?”
Before the pandemic, teaching staff made an average of 26 contacts per day – two-thirds of which were with children. The researchers found that contacts between adults and children had been reduced by five times during the pandemic, stating that “Given that mixing with groups of children is part of the job of classroom staff the reduction is impressive.”
They found that for younger children, between the ages of 4 and 6, contacts had reduced by 53 percent since the pandemic hit. For older children, between the ages of 10 and 11, contacts were reduced by 62 percent. They found that bubbles contained between 6 and 15 children.
The authors of the study point out that, as they only counted contacts at a certain distance and time, “Our study misses out on shorter more frequent contacts.” They also explain that “It seems unlikely that the significant reduction of risk, implied by these results, can be maintained with a full return to school without greatly expanding the accommodation to maintain reduced class sizes.”
In conclusion, they stated that “there is a broad consensus that physical distancing measures can be maintained to some extent with a full return of children, but not to the same extent as achieved in June and July.”