Fact-checking claims on coronavirus transmission in schools

5 November 2020
What was claimed

Virus levels are now 50x higher among secondary school pupils than they were in September.

Our verdict

According to ONS data, this is correct.

What was claimed

38% of infections outside of the home are caught in schools

Our verdict

This data refers to the number of Covid-19 incidents reported by local health teams. It does not represent all non-domestic transmission and it is misleading to suggest this.

“NEU analysis of ONS figures shows that virus levels are now 9 times higher amongst primary pupils and an astonishing 50 times higher amongst secondary pupils.”

“Just 4% of infections outside the home trace back to pubs and restaurants. But by contrast, 38% of infections are caught in schools, by far the biggest means of transmission.”

As England prepares for another lockdown, but this time with educational settings remaining open, our readers have asked us about claims around the levels of coronavirus transmission in schools. We’ve written about the evidence on how Covid-19 is transmitted in schools before.

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The NEU figures on secondary school infections

The National Education Union (NEU) is campaigning for schools and further education colleges to close during the lockdown. The union has said that the Office for National Statistics (ONS) estimates 1% of primary school pupils and 2% of secondary school pupils have the virus. 

It also claims that virus levels are now nine times higher amongst primary school pupils and 50 times higher amongst secondary pupils than they were in September. 

According to ONS data, this is correct. 

The latest ONS coronavirus infection survey found that older teenagers and young adults “continue to have the highest positivity rates, while rates appear to be steeply increasing among secondary school children.” 

ONS data shows that, as of 23 October, an estimated 2.01% of pupils in England between Year 7 and Year 11 tested positive for Covid-19. On 1 September this rate was 0.04%, so the NEU is right that there has been a fiftyfold increase. 

The data also shows that 1.04% of children aged between two years-old and school Year 6 in England have tested positive for coronavirus by 23 October. Primary school pupils are included within this bracket, but it is worth noting that not all of the children in this category are primary school-aged. On 1 September this rate was 0.11%.

Skwawkbox claims on school transmission

Our readers have also asked us to check a blog post from Skwawkbox, which claimed that 38% of infections caught outside the home are in schools, compared to 4% in pubs and restaurants. 

When this article was published on 9 October, the latest weekly Public Health England (PHE) Covid-19 surveillance report said educational settings accounted for the 38% of Covid-19 acute respiratory infection (ARI) incidents reported to Health Protection Teams. 

However, ARI incidents are reported based on situations where two or more laboratory confirmed cases are linked to a particular setting, or an outbreak is suspected.

This means that the data does not cover all Covid-19 cases linked to settings outside of the home, such as isolated cases. It also doesn’t necessarily mean that if a case was linked to, say, a school, that it would have been caught in a school.

Therefore it’s incorrect to claim that 38% of all non-domestic infections are caught in schools.

It’s also important to note that “educational settings” does not only cover schools in this case, but also colleges and universities. PHE also notes that a national school helpline began operating on 17 September, and a universities helpline on 7 October, which it said “is likely to have had an impact on the number of situations/outbreaks being reported”.

The latest PHE data (up to 27 October) shows that 234 of 983 ARI incidents with a Covid-19 linked case (24%) were in educational settings.

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