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How can we get pupils and staff back to school safely during COVID-19?

11 September 2020 

Ensuring pupils and staff stay safe when they return to school this autumn is a major challenge because there is very little scientific evidence on the incidence and transmission of COVID-19 within schools. A ground-breaking research project will test whether 5,000 staff and pupils have active or past COVID-19 infection, develop systems to help schools prevent and cope with an outbreak and assess strategies to support the mental wellbeing of the school community now and moving forward. 

Children wearing face masks sitting at desks writing in school during coronavirus pandemic

The project, COVID-19 Mapping and Mitigation in Schools (CoMMinS), will be led by the University of Bristol and is funded by a £2.7 million NIHR-UKRI COVID-19 rapid response initiative. The NIHR Health Protection Research Unit in Behavioural Science and Evaluation at University of Bristol is a partner on the project.

Around nine million 4- to 18-year-old children attend school in England, around 16 per cent of the total population, but little is known about the impact and transmission patterns of COVID-19 in schoolchildren, how patterns of infection amongst pupils might impact the wider community, or the long-term consequences of school closure on the health of pupils.

Limiting transmission of coronavirus in schools is challenging because children with COVID-19 often show no obvious symptoms and schoolchildren normally interact with a large number of other children and adults.

Working with Bristol City Council, Public Health England, local primary and secondary schools and other city stakeholders, CoMMinS will, over a six-month period, test for infection in schools and test whether staff and pupils have current or past COVID-19 infection.

Another complementary part of the project will be a collaboration with Middlesex University in a study of wastewater from school drains to monitor the amount of SARS-Cov2 virus present to see if this can provide an early warning of changes in infection levels.

This is a highly multi-disciplinary project involving epidemiologists, virologists, data scientists, engineers, health psychologists, headteachers and many other skills. Infection patterns will be mapped across the city to highlight areas that may need more support.  The Germ Defence app, which currently gives practical advice to adults to reduce infection spread in the home, will be adapted for use by children, teachers and parents in schools to help everyone reduce the infection rate at school and in the community.

The researchers will also explore the mental wellbeing of pupils and staff as they re-adjust to school life, and examine school approaches, capturing best existing school practice, to ensure good mental wellbeing of pupils both as they return to school but also to mitigate future issues that might arise.

The research findings will jointly create new knowledge and tools to help schools deal with the practical challenges of preventing and coping with an outbreak of COVID-19.

Caroline Relton, Professor of Epigenetic Epidemiology, in the Bristol Medical School: Population Health Sciences (PHS) and MRC Integrative Epidemiology Unit, Director of the Bristol Population Health Science Institute, and a member of the Bristol UNCOVER group, who is leading CoMMinS, said: “It’s important we increase our understanding of infection patterns in schoolchildren, so schools can keep managing their operation as effectively as possible.  This study proposes to combine measures of current and previous coronavirus infection as well as working with schools to enhance approaches to prevent and control infection as and when it does arise.

“Working closely with key stakeholders in Bristol, our project will deliver immediate and lasting benefits to the education sector and we look forward to working with Bristol schools in the coming months and thank them for their help with the project.”

Elisabeth Gilpin, Headteacher of St Mary Redcliffe and Temple School, one of the Bristol schools taking part in the research project, added: “Being part of this project will help in the safe return of our pupils, many of whom have been learning from home since the beginning of lockdown. 

“I am really excited to be involved in the design of a project that will be genuinely helpful to my school, other schools and the government in helping ensure that students and staff can be as safe as possible in school.  It gives us another tool that will help us re-build safe boundaries, restore relationships and renew our learning as we have the pleasure of welcoming back all our wonderful young people onto our school site.  I feel fortunate we have been asked to take part.”

As part of the project, Research Champions will be identified from participating students in each school.  They will play a role in promoting the study within their school and have the opportunity to meet with other school Research Champions during the project. They will also be able to join a CoMMinS symposium towards the end of the study to discuss and present their views on the research process and study findings.

‘COVID-19 Mapping and Mitigation in Schools (CoMMinS)’ is a 12-month study that will run until 31 July 2021.


Further information 

About the NIHR 

The National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) is the nation's largest funder of health and care research. The NIHR:

  • funds, supports and delivers high quality research that benefits the NHS, public health and social care
  • engages and involves patients, carers and the public in order to improve the reach, quality and impact of research
  • attracts, trains and supports the best researchers to tackle the complex health and care challenges of the future
  • invests in world-class infrastructure and a skilled delivery workforce to translate discoveries into improved treatments and services
  • partners with other public funders, charities and industry to maximise the value of research to patients and the economy.

The NIHR was established in 2006 to improve the health and wealth of the nation through research, and is funded by the Department of Health and Social Care. In addition to its national role, the NIHR supports applied health research for the direct and primary benefit of people in low- and middle-income countries, using UK aid from the UK government.