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Highland school closures: Is Covid being spread on school buses?

Covid primary schools
Public health expert has suggested school buses might be contributing to the Covid-19 case numbers in Highland Council schools.

School bus travel could be partly to blame for the current Covid spike in north schools, according to the experts.

Face masks on school transport and rolling out the vaccine to younger children could be possible solutions to the area’s problem.

Hundreds of Highland pupils have been stuck at home in the past two weeks as secondary and primary schools were closed at short notice.

The reason for the apparent rise specifically in the north was a mystery.

But now, local NHS public health director Dr Tim Allison has explained some possible reasons for the spike.

He spoke to the council’s education committee about the “surprising” rise of Covid cases among Highland primary school children.

“We had hoped that Covid rates would be going down since the peak in August, but probably a bit worse than plateauing, it’s been going up in the community. That tends to be all across the communities,” said Dr Allison.

Vaccines could be extended

Dr Allison said areas that have not had major outbreaks in the past appear to be feeling the brunt of cases now. He said the NHS Highland area is recording around 200 cases a day, two-thirds of those in the Highland Council area.

“What’s different now to previous waves of Covid is the preponderance among young people, particularly of primary school age,” he said. “That’s probably for two reasons: partly that young children are not vaccinated and secondly that lots of young children in the past have not been infected.

“We have a lot of Covid within schools, particularly primary schools. What is perhaps surprising is the amount of Covid in any one class. We could get a class with a majority of children – the great majority in some cases – testing positive for Covid. That’s unusual.”

Dr Tim Allison, Director of Public Health and Policy for NHS Highland.

Dr Allison stressed that there’s not one reason why Covid is on the rise in Highland primary schools. However, school buses could play a part.

“There may also be some differences in the way that schools work here compared with other places. An example of that could be the large number of children who travel by small school buses, and the possibility of spread there.”

Young children on school buses may be asked to wear face masks, said Dr Allison. He also said it’s possible the vaccination programme will expand to include younger children. However, he stressed this was speculation.

Schools are working tirelessly

Dr Jenny Wares from Health Protection Scotland underlined the strong partnership working going on between health and education. “It has been a challenging start but we’re working incredibly closely with school staff. We’re so grateful for the work they’re doing on top of their existing roles. They’re working tirelessly to prevent Covid spreading,” she said.

A Highland Council spokesperson said that, due to the size of the council’s estate, decisions on closure are left to individual schools. Headteachers consult with their area manager about whether they will need to close.

Dr Wares further clarified the process on school closures and isolation. She said that where there is one positive case, the school notifies public health and issues letters to all parents in that class.

Pupils do not need to test or self-isolate immediately, she said. This is a change from the previous protocol. Instead, the advice is to be vigilant for symptoms.

If there are more positive cases in the same class, Public Health Scotland carries out a risk assessment. This aims to clarify whether the virus is spreading within the class.

If so, the entire class or even the entire school will be asked to isolate.

But some parents in other councils have complained that this process relies too much on individuals correctly identifying their contacts. They worry some close contacts are slipping through the cracks, and classes are staying open when it isn’t safe.

1,000 Covid cases last month

Derek Martin from the council said schools have also had to close due to the high numbers of staff self-isolating.

Since the return from the October holidays, over a dozen schools were temporarily closed or partially closed due to Covid-19 cases or staffing shortages. More closures are still being reported every day.

There was a large Covid outbreak at Avoch Primary School early in November. Supplied by Street view

Last month, there were 1,000 Covid cases in schools, and pupil absences in the Highlands are on the rise.

Earlier this month, Avoch Primary on the Black Isle suffered a major outbreak. The council cancelled all non-essential activities on campus after 80 pupils tested positive for Covid, said Mr Martin.

Improved ventilation through CO2 monitors is helping, he said, and the schools continue to encourage face coverings and hand washing.

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