From late spring to early summer, UK primary and secondary schools were open during an alarming wave of Delta infections.
And they handled the Delta Peak in a way that might surprise American parents, educators, and lawmakers: Masking was a limited part of the strategy. In fact, for the most part, elementary school students and their teachers did not wear them in classrooms at all.
Instead, the UK government has focused on other security measures, widespread quarantine and rapid testing.
“The UK has always, from the start, stressed that it sees no place for face coverings for children if it is preventable,” 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 outweighs the potential benefits, he said, because seeing faces is “important for social development and the interaction between people.”
The British school system is different from the American one. But with school systems across the United States debating whether to require the mask, Britain’s experience during the delta surge shows what happened in a country that turned out to be relied on another safety measure – quarantine – rather than face coverings for young children.
Unlike the United States, all public and private schools in England must follow the national government’s virus mandates, and there is one set of guidelines. (Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are responsible for their own schools, but the rules are similar.)
The Delta variant has tested the guidelines. From June, the number of cases increased rapidly before peaking in mid-July, which roughly reflects the last months of the school calendar. For the 13 million people under the age of 20 in England, daily virus cases have dropped from around 600 in mid-May to 12,000 in mid-July, according to government data. Test positivity rates were highest among children and young adults – aged 5 to 24 – but they were also the least likely to be vaccinated.
It is difficult to determine with precision the extent of the spread on campuses. But throughout the pandemic, government studies have shown that infection rates in schools do not exceed those in the general community, Dr Ladhani said. In schools that have experienced multiple cases of the virus, he added, there have often been “multiple introductions” – meaning the infections were likely acquired outside the building.
There is debate over whether the end of the school year in mid-July contributed to the decline in virus cases in the country, but some researchers point out that the decline began before the schools closed.
To counter the Delta variant in the past school year, the government has provided free rapid tests to families and instructed them to test their children at home twice a week, although compliance is spotty. Students were kept in groups in the school building and sent home for a 10-day quarantine if a case of the virus was confirmed in the bubble. More than 90 percent of school staff had received at least one dose of the vaccine by the end of June, according to a government poll of English schools, a vaccination rate similar to that of American teachers in the North East and the west, but higher than in the south. .
Under government guidelines, masks in classrooms were only required for discrete periods in high schools, the equivalent of middle and high school, and were never required for elementary-age children.
And there were fewer partisan divisions; the Conservative and Labor parties have generally believed that face coverings hamper the ability of young children to communicate, socialize and learn.
In England, schools followed government recommendations last school year and aggressively quarantined students and staff who came into contact with the virus.
But the quarantines were disruptive for students and parents and led, in mid-July, to the expulsion of more than one million children from schools, or 14% of the population from public schools. During the same period, around 7 percent of teachers were sent home.
Rudo Manokore-Addy, the mother of a 7 and 3-year-old in London, described herself as more cautious about the virus than the typical British parent. In the spring of 2020, she encouraged her daughters to wear sheet masks outside the house. Sometimes last summer and winter she kept the two girls at home to observe school virus policies before sending her children away.
Last spring, during the Delta wave, she and her husband gladly kept their children in school, without a mask.
“I was pretty relaxed,” she said. “In the end, we just decided to go with it. We were convinced that the school had practices in place.
In the United States, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention currently recommends universal masking inside school buildings, and the CDC has indicated that mask use violations were likely responsible for some spread of Covid. -19 in American schools.
The recommendation was divisive, with nine states attempting to ban orders for school masks, according to the Center on Reinventing Public Education, a think tank. But with low vaccination rates in many communities and limited access to regular viral testing across the country, masking may be one of the easiest safety measures for American schools to put in place. Additionally, the CDC said students who come in contact with the virus in schools do not need to self-quarantine if both individuals are wearing tight-fitting masks.
The American conversation about masks is “so polarized,” said Alasdair Munro, a pediatric infectious disease researcher at Southampton University Hospital. “This appears to be seen either as an essential and non-negotiable imperative or as a very prejudicial interference with individual liberty.”
Others in Britain would appreciate the masking. Dr Deepti Gurdasani, epidemiologist and senior lecturer at Queen Mary University in London, has widely advocated for stricter safety measures in schools. She called the UK government’s opposition to masking in children ‘ideological’ and said she viewed with envy the policies of the New York school system regarding universal masking and the installation of two air purifiers. in each class.
But there have also been some quarantine in the United States, with some schools that have reopened for the new school year temporarily closing classrooms in recent weeks.
Research from Britain suggests rapid tests may be an alternative. In a study conducted during the spread of the Delta variant, secondary schools and colleges in England were randomly assigned to quarantine or test.
A cluster of schools have quarantined students and staff who have come in contact with positive cases of Covid-19. The other allowed these contacts to continue entering the building, but with the obligation to undergo a rapid test for the virus every day for a week; only those who tested positive would be sent home.
Although the daily testing regimen was difficult to achieve for some schools, the results were reassuring: In the quarantine and testing groups, less than 2% of contacts tested positive for Covid-19.
Other reassuring evidence comes from the antibody testing of school staff; the positivity rates were the same or lower than those of adults in the community, suggesting the schools were not “centers of infection,” according to Public Health England, a government agency.
Today, after long periods of classroom closures, there is now a broad consensus in Britain that policies that prevent children from going to school are “extremely bad in the long run” , said Dr Munro.
The national education ministry also announced last week that during the next school year, no one under the age of 18 would be forced to quarantine themselves after contact with a positive virus case, regardless of or his vaccination status. (In Britain, vaccines are approved for people 16 years of age and older.)
Masks will not be required for students or school staff, although they are recommended in “confined and crowded spaces where you may come into contact with people you don’t normally meet”, such as public transportation to and from school.
Some critics believe the UK government has been too quick to relax security measures inside schools.
Dr Gurdasani said the lack of precautions this fall will increase the number of children infected and suffering from the effects of the long Covid.
“I am not arguing for the closure of schools,” she said. “But I don’t want a generation of disabled children in the years to come.”
Robin Bevan, chairman of the National Education Union and principal of a secondary school in Southend, east London, said he found it curious that Britons regularly masked themselves in supermarkets, but not in schools.
“All we have to do is open the windows and wash our hands,” he said. “This is the government’s position.
School leaders have the flexibility to continue to keep children in defined bubbles or pods to reduce transmission – a practice Mr Bevan said he would like to continue.
Many parents say they keep calm.
“It was as if in the UK there was such a political commitment to reopen,” said Bethan Roberts, 40, who felt confident to bring her three children back to in-person learning last spring and keep them there during the delta surge.
“It didn’t sound very controversial here,” she added. “And there were a lot of exhausted parents who were just like, ‘We can’t do this anymore. “”
Alicia Parlapiano contributed reports.