Scottish Teachers Did Not Face an Elevated Risk of Severe COVID-19 When Schools Were Open

It’s been known since early in the pandemic that children’s risk of death from COVID-19 is extremely low. However, proponents of school closures have long argued that keeping schools open would put teachers at significant risk.

Back in January, six teaching unions urged the Government to “pause” school reopenings. They argued that returning pupils to classrooms while the virus was still spreading would expose education workers to “serious risk of ill-health”.

However, figures published by the ONS later that month cast serious doubt on the unions’ claims. Between March and December of 2020, the COVID-19 death rate among education workers – adjusted for age and sex – was “significantly lower” than that among the general population.

The highest death rates were observed among taxi drivers, machine operators, security guards, restaurant workers, and social care staff – i.e., in working class professions.

One potential criticism of the ONS report is that the researchers took an average over ten months, and schools were closed for much of that time. Perhaps the risk for teachers would have been much higher if schools had stayed open?

A new study published in The BMJ confirms that Scottish teachers were not at elevated risk of severe COVID-19 even when schools were open.

The authors analysed a large dataset comprising all the confirmed cases in Scotland up to June 2021, as well as a large sample of controls matched for age, sex and location. This dataset included over 25,000 teaching staff.

The authors’ main finding is shown in the figure below. Periods of interest are the autumn term of 2020 and the summer term of 2021, since this is when schools were open. In both periods, teachers’ risk of hospitalisation was not significantly higher than that of the general population.

The authors also estimated more complex models that controlled for a range of demographic characteristics, and confirmed there was no significant difference between teachers and the general population during the periods when schools were open.

This is consistent with the Swedish study which found that keeping primary and lower-secondary schools open had little impact on the spread of COVID-19.

One could reasonably argue that in-person teaching qualifies as an ‘essential’ service, especially if we’re talking about younger children. Given that teachers were at no greater risk than the general population, the unions’ case against in-person teaching falls apart.

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