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Study finds families and staff support school COVID-19 measures and testing, but action is needed to avoid widening inequalities

16 March 2021 

Families and staff support school COVID-19 infection control measures and welcome the roll-out of testing in schools, a Bristol study has found. National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) funded researchers from the University of Bristol interviewed teachers, pupils, parents and carers from local secondary schools in the Back to School study, to understand how schools can give young people, parents and teachers the best support during the coronavirus pandemic.

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

The research team recommend schools adopt an encouraging and compassionate approach to applying the measures, with clear messaging emphasising the important role everyone plays. This would support compliance with infection control measures. To avoid widening educational and health inequalities, schools and policymakers should also consider the unintended impacts of COVID-19 measures and provide extra support for vulnerable students and those with additional needs.

The Back to School team interviewed young people, parents and school staff between July and September 2020. Interviews were held with 13 school staff, including head teachers and assistant heads, teachers and Special Educational Needs Coordinators, 20 parents and 17 students aged 11-16, from 14 diverse secondary schools in Bristol.

Concerns about COVID-19 risk of going to school were outweighed by the perceived impacts of missing learning. Interviewees described a wide variety of school COVID-19 measures being planned as a result of unclear government guidance, meaning each school had to develop their own plans. Participants generally saw infection control measures as an acceptable and pragmatic solution to the apparent impossibility of social distancing in crowded schools. Some staff felt guilt around being a potential “Covid-19 spreader” by teaching multiple classes.

The findings support calls for extra school funding to help implement COVID-19 infection control measures, including hand-sanitiser, extra cleaning staff, free face masks for all pupils, improved ventilation and hiring extra teachers and teaching rooms to enable socially distanced smaller classes.

The study suggests that clear, consistent information and reminders, and engendering a sense of collective responsibility could help students follow the measures. This includes the importance of emphasising the social good, benefits to students’ families or the wider community, and a sense of collective identity and responsibility.

Participants welcomed COVID-19 testing in schools, to reassure staff, students and parents about school safety, encourage attendance and potentially reduce the need for school closures. A small number of concerns were raised relating to:

  • data security and anonymity around getting a positive COVID-19 test
  • more school closures from positive test results
  • practical aspects of testing (time, space and administration).

These findings have important implications for policymakers and schools. Clear, consistent information is needed from both governments and schools, to create a sense of collective responsibility and prevent stigma related to COVID-19 infection.

Tailored support for vulnerable students and those with additional needs must be considered. Schools and policymakers need to think about:

  • potential unintended consequences of measures
  • ways to support vulnerable individuals and those with additional needs
  • how to avoid deepening inequalities
  • Additional funding to achieve this may be required.

These findings have fed into the development of the COVID-19 mapping and mitigation in schools (CoMMinS) study. CoMMinS aims to understand how COVID-19 spreads in schools and is transmitted to family contacts. It also aims to work with schools to develop new knowledge and tools to help schools to manage the risk of infection while staying open. The research programme is led by Professor Caroline Relton and involves a large team of experts on infectious diseases, virologists, vaccine experts, laboratory scientists, data analysts, engineers and health psychologists.

Dr Sabi Redwood from the NIHR Applied Research Collaborative (ARC West) and Dr Jeremy Horwood from ARC West and the NIHR Health Protection Research Unit (HPRU) in Behavioural Science and Evaluation at University of Bristol are leading a sub-study of CoMMinS investigating the mental well-being of students and staff as a result of COVID-19 measures.

Dr Ava Lorenc, from University of Bristol and NIHR ARC West and a lead author of the study said: “The Back to School study has provided important evidence on how to tackle reducing the risks of infection and rolling out COVID-19 testing in schools. As we find ourselves in another lockdown and schools are currently closed, policymakers and schools can use our findings to inform their planning for when all students return to school. A key finding was that testing must be managed sensitively to avoid stigma, ensure data security and minimise disruption to schools. To help with compliance with measures to reduce infection, clear and consistent information is vital.”

Dr Jeremy Horwood, from University of Bristol, NIHR ARC West and NIHR HPRU, said: “While our participants found school COVID-19 mitigation measures acceptable, our study highlights their concerns about the impossibility of social distancing in crowded schools. Even though the interviews were conducted last summer, many classrooms remain crowded and badly ventilated, ideal for COVID-19 transmission. Our findings support calls for extra school funding to hire additional staff and teaching rooms to reduce class sizes and enable social distancing, to make schools safer for everyone.”


About the NIHR Health Protection Research Unit [HPRU] in Behavioural Science and Evaluation at the University of Bristol 

The NIHR HPRU in Behavioural Science and Evaluation at University of Bristol is one of 14 HPRUs across England, part of a £58.7 million investment by the NIHR to protect the health of the nation. 

The NIHR HPRU in Behavioural Science and Evaluation is a partnership between Public Health England and University of Bristol, in collaboration with MRC Biostatistics Research Unit at the University of Cambridge and University of the West of England. 

Each NIHR HPRU undertakes high quality research that is used by PHE to keep the public safe from current and emerging public health threats.

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.