From late spring to early summer, the UK’s elementary and secondary schools were open during an alarming wave of Delta infections.
And they dealt with the Delta Spike in a way that might surprise American parents, educators, and lawmakers: masking was a limited part of the strategy. In fact, most elementary school students and their teachers didn’t wear them in the classrooms at all.
Instead, the UK government focused on other security measures, widespread quarantine and rapid testing.
“The UK has always emphasized from the start that it sees no place for face-covering for children when it can be avoided,” said Dr. Shamez Ladhani, pediatric infectious disease specialist at St. George’s Hospital in London and author of several government studies on the virus and schools.
The potential harm exceeds the potential benefit, he said, because seeing faces is “important for social development and human interaction.”
The British school system is different from the American one. But with school systems across the United States debating whether masking is required, the UK’s experience during the delta rise shows what happened in a country that relies on a different safety measure – quarantine – rather than face covering for little ones Children left.
Unlike the United States, all public and private schools in England are expected to follow the national government’s virus mandates and there are only a number of guidelines. (Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are responsible for their own schools, but the rules were similar.)
The Delta variant has tested the guidelines. From June onwards, the number of cases rose rapidly before peaking in mid-July, roughly reflecting the last few months of the school calendar. Among the 13 million people under the age of 20 in England, daily virus cases rose from around 600 in mid-May to 12,000 in mid-July, according to government figures. Test positive rates were highest in children and young adults ages 5 to 24, but they were also the least likely to be vaccinated.
It is difficult to determine exactly how much dissemination has taken place on campus. However, throughout the pandemic, government studies showed that infection rates in schools did not exceed those in the community as a whole, said Dr. Ladhani. Schools that have had multiple cases of the virus often had “multiple introductions” – meaning that infections were likely acquired outside of the building.
It is debated whether the end of the school year in mid-July contributed to the decline in virus cases in the nation, but some researchers suggest the decline began before schools closed.
To counteract the delta variant in the senior year of college, the government provided families with free rapid tests and encouraged them to test their children at home twice a week, even though compliance was patchy. Students were kept in groups within the school building and sent home for a 10-day quarantine if a virus case inside the bladder was confirmed. More than 90 percent of school staff had received at least one dose of vaccine by the end of June, according to a government sample survey of English schools, a vaccination rate similar to American teachers in the northeast and west, but higher than in the south.
According to government guidelines, masks in classrooms were only required for specific periods of time in secondary schools, equivalent to middle and high school, and were never required for primary school children.
And there were fewer partisan divisions; Both Conservatives and Labor parties generally believe that face covering affects young children’s communication, socialization and learning skills.
In England, schools last school year followed government recommendations and aggressively quarantined students and staff who came into contact with the virus.
But quarantines were disruptive to students and parents, resulting in more than 1 million children being forced out of schools, or 14 percent of the public school population, in mid-July. About 7 percent of teachers were sent home over the same period.
Aug. 28, 2021, 3:37 p.m. ET
Rudo Manokore-Addy, the mother of a 7 and 3 year old in London, described himself as more cautious when it came to the virus than the typical British parent. In the spring of 2020, she encouraged her daughters to wear cloth masks in front of the house. Over the past summer and winter, she temporarily kept both girls out of school to monitor the school’s virus guidelines before sending their children back.
Last spring, during the Delta Wave, she and her husband liked to keep their children unmasked at school.
“I was very relaxed,” she said. “In the end we just decided to take part. We were confident that the school had practices. “
In the United States, the Federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is currently recommending universal masking in school buildings, and the CDC has indicated that violations of the use of masks were likely responsible for some spread of Covid-19 in American schools.
That recommendation was contradicting itself as nine states tried to ban the ordering of school masks, according to the Center on Reinventing Public Education, a think tank. However, given the low vaccination rates in many communities and limited access to regular virus testing across the country, masking can be one of the easiest safety measures for American schools. In addition, the CDC has stated that students who come into contact with the virus in schools do not need to be quarantined if both people are wearing well-fitting masks.
American conversation about masks is “so polarized,” said Alasdair Munro, a pediatric infectious disease researcher at Southampton University Hospital. “It seems to be seen either as an essential, non-negotiable imperative or as a very harmful interference with individual freedom.”
Others in the UK would welcome masking. Dr. Deepti Gurdasani, an epidemiologist and lecturer at Queen Mary University of London, has spoken out in favor of stricter security in schools. Calling the UK government’s opposition to child masking “ideological”, she said she viewed with envy the New York school system’s guidelines for universal masking and the placement of two air purifiers in each classroom.
But there was also quarantine in the United States, with some schools that have reopened for the new school year temporarily closing classrooms in recent weeks.
Research from the UK suggests that rapid tests could be an alternative. In a study conducted on the spread of the Delta variant, secondary schools and colleges in England were randomly assigned to quarantine or a test.
A group of schools quarantined students and staff who came into contact with positive Covid-19 cases. The other allowed these contacts to continue to come into the building, but on condition that they do a rapid virus test every day for a week; only those who tested positive were sent home.
Although the daily testing program was challenging for some schools, the results were reassuring: in both the quarantine and test groups, less than 2 percent of the contacts tested positive for Covid-19.
Another reassuring piece of evidence is the testing of antibodies by school staff; The positivity rates were equal to or lower than adults in the community, suggesting that schools were not “centers of contagion” according to Public Health England, a government agency.
Today, after long periods of closed classrooms, there is now a broad consensus in the UK that measures to keep children out of school are “extremely harmful in the long run,” said Dr. Munro.
The national Ministry of Education also announced last week that in the coming school year no one under the age of 18 should be forced into quarantine after contact with a positive virus case, regardless of their vaccination status. (In the UK, vaccines are approved for people aged 16 and over.)
Masks are not required for students and school staff, although it is recommended in “closed and crowded spaces where you can come into contact with people you normally do not meet,” such as in the office. B. in public transport to and from school.
Some critics believe the UK government was too quick to loosen security in schools.
Dr. Gurdasani said the lack of precautionary measures this fall would increase the number of children infected and suffering the effects of long-term Covid.
“I’m not advocating school closings,” she said. “But I don’t want a generation of children to be disabled in the years to come.”
Robin Bevan, president of the National Education Union and principal of a secondary school in Southend, east of London, said he found it strange that Britons regularly mask themselves in supermarkets but not in schools.
“We just have to open the windows and wash our hands,” he said. “That is the government position.”
School principals have the leeway to continue holding children in defined bladders or capsules to reduce transmission – a practice Mr Bevan said he would like to maintain.
Many parents say they keep calm.
“It felt like there was such a political commitment to reopening in the UK,” said Bethan Roberts, 40, who was confident she could bring her three children back to face-to-face study last spring and take them there during the delta rise keep.
“It didn’t feel very controversial here,” she added. “And there were a lot of exhausted parents who just said, ‘We can’t do this anymore.'”
Alicia Parlapiano contributed to the coverage.