LSHTM to jointly lead new study of COVID-19 infections in schools

The London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine LSHTM, Office for National Statistics (ONS) and Public Health England (PHE) are to jointly lead a study to better understand the spread of the coronavirus (COVID-19) in schools in England.
Children sitting on chairs inside a classroom.

Letters will go to a sample of primary and secondary schools shortly asking them to take part in the study, which is being sponsored by the Department of Health and Social Care.

The sample will consist of two year groups from 100 secondary schools and every child attending 50 selected primary schools, starting from 2 November 2020, totalling approximately 30,000 pupils and 12,000 staff. 

These schools will be selected from a range of local authorities to provide the best possible sample for this work. 

Students and staff will be tested at termly intervals during the school year to detect new cases, monitor attendance rates and reasons for not attending school, and assess the effectiveness of measures put in place to control the virus. 

Professor Sinéad Langan, Co-Chief Investigator, LSHTM, said: "We are delighted to be involved in this important research. We need to understand if schools play an important role in the transmission of the virus that causes COVID-19.” 

Professor James Hargreaves, Co-Chief Investigator, LSHTM, said: "We need more accurate information on how to minimise any risks of transmission in and around schools. By bringing together scientists, school staff, parents and students, we aim to address these urgent questions. Together we face the challenge of enabling education for all, ensuring that schools are safe places to work and study, and minimising transmission of the virus. This study will shed light on how to best to manage this in the most effective way.” 

As well as collecting nasal swabs and oral fluid (saliva) samples from pupils and staff to detect the presence of the virus and antibodies, a subset of 50 participating schools will also be included in a pilot programme aiming to detect the presence of the virus in waste water. Samples will be collected twice a week from each school’s private drainage system and analysed by Middlesex University and other approved partners. 

Iain Bell, Deputy National Statistician at the ONS, said: “The results of this new survey will be central to improving our understanding of COVID-19 within the school environment and the course of the pandemic. 

“I urge all schools that are approached to sign up and help us gather the information we need to keep children and teachers safe as students return to school after the autumn half-term.” 

The ONS is already leading the UK-wide COVID-19 Infection Survey. Currently gathering around 150,000 swab samples fortnightly, the survey is seen as providing the most robust picture of recent infections. 

Dr Shamez Ladhani, Consultant Paediatrician at PHE and the study’s chief investigator, said: “This study is among the largest of its kind to be conducted anywhere in the world. Its large sample size and innovative new testing techniques will serve to provide us with critical information on SARS-CoV-2 infection and transmission in educational settings. It will also help us to discover how long an antibody response lasts in children and adults and what level of protection it might provide against reinfection. These are critical to our ability to effectively respond to the pandemic.”

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