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Coronavirus: The simple measure schools can take to reduce Covid-19 infection risk

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Open the windows and doors and wear a coat in the classroom – that’s the advice from an Addenbrooke’s doctor on how to curb the spread of coronavirus in schools this winter.

He explained that medics have learnt ventilation is key to controlling Covid-19 as schools reopen and that air conditioning and closed windows are a recipe for disaster.

And he warned we should prepare for a second peak of the virus in December as he predicted cases could reach the same levels as they did at the start of the pandemic by Christmas.

Dr Matt Butler, a consultant from the Covid Assessment Unit at Addenbrooke’s Hospital, has presented online ‘Coronacast’ question and answer sessions for headteachers around the country since being asked for his advice by Milton Road Primary School headteacher Rae Snape.

Dr Matt Butler from Addenbrooke's Hospital
Dr Matt Butler from Addenbrooke's Hospital

He spoke to the Cambridge Independent ahead of his next Coronacast meeting with headteachers.

“What I stressed to headteachers in the summer was anything they put in place in their schools had to be manageable into the winter months.

“So my focus now is how will they manage when it gets cold and wet,” said Dr Butler.

Winter is a time when other viruses, such as the flu, become a problem because people naturally spend more time together indoors.

He explained: “The big key to managing coronavirus prevention in indoor environments is ventilation. Anything you can do to increase the number of ‘air changes’ will help. That refers to how many times the whole air volume of the room cycles.

“You can do that in a number of ways such as by increasing throughput of air by having the windows and doors open.

“If it is cold, I don’t actually advocate changing that. I would not say close the windows. The better thing would be to advise parents to send children in with warmer clothing. You shouldn’t be so cold that your hands are too cold to work, but I don’t think it ever would be that bad in an indoor setting with children.

A coronavirus illustration
A coronavirus illustration

“They seem to manage the cold fairly well. It is going to be really bad for heating bills, of course. We need to make sure that children have enough clothing at school so they are not going to be cold.

“I will also advise heads that they increase the amount of time they spend outside and transfer as much learning as possible to the outdoors. There was already a push for children to learn in outdoor classrooms but that sort of thing on a wide scale would help. Outdoor learning was quite a niche thing before but now it is a necessary infection control measure.

“Just being outdoors and transferring them into that environment where there is a bigger volume of air will mean there is very little likelihood they can transmit in those settings – even if you are close to someone that has infection.

“The main focus needs to be on the harm of closing schools. Schools should be the last places to close – we should do everything to keep schools open.

“We should definitely close pubs before schools. We must close everything else first and go back to homeworking. Getting adults out of offices would be preferable to getting children out of schools because of the huge impact it has on their education and mental health.”

Children are being asked by some schools to wear masks in corridors and communal areas.
Children are being asked by some schools to wear masks in corridors and communal areas.

And he warned that measures to make schools Covid-safe would have to continue long term: “It’s about things you can do sustainably. There’s no point doing something now which you can’t keep going during the second peak, which is predicted to be around December time, because you are just going through the motions.

“The difficulty is there is the cost of the virus and the cost of things you do to control the virus, and the cost of not sending children to school is too great. So you have to find this difficult balancing act. There is in the community a one-in-1,500 chance of meeting someone with Covid and that’s not changed much since the end of June. There is still a lot (of Covid-19) out there .”

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