Thanks to our growing knowledge around the impact of COVID-19 and the successful rollout of the COVID-19 vaccination programme, return to schools this year is looks very different to that in last August.

Protecting education during a pandemic is not a challenge any one organisation can rise to on its own. We have been working in partnership with education leaders at both national and local levels, and with support and cooperation from pupils, parents and education staff. All of which has been integral in a safe return to school.  

COVID-19 has posed real threats to education not only in Scotland but also globally. This is why Public Health Scotland (PHS) set up the Enhanced COVID-19 Surveillance in Education Programme early on in the pandemic. Through this programme, we collate and produce crucial data and evidence to inform important health measures for education settings.  

We know that education is vital to the health and wellbeing of pupils as well as their future prospects. Education also plays a critical role in bridging the gap between health inequalities.  These are both key areas of focus for PHS and the work carried out through the Enhanced COVID-19 Surveillance in Education Programme reflects our purpose to protect and improve health.

Our data and intelligence-led approach

Mitigation measures put in place in education settings need to carefully balance the risks and benefits to children and young people as well as to staff working in those settings. To inform this, our Education Surveillance Programme brings together a wide range of projects monitoring the impact of COVID-19 on children and young people as well as the workforce.

As part of this programme, our weekly public dashboard enables our partners across public health to understand the current situation with COVID-19 in children and young people in as close to real-time as possible. Regular testing is key to this, so we can ensure we continue to provide the most timely and robust picture of COVID-19 in children and in education settings.

Bespoke surveillance studies, like the COVID-19 Antibody Survey of education Staff (CASS), which ran during the 2020/21 school year is also part of this programme. CASS aimed to monitor the proportion of people working in education in Scotland who have had COVID-19 by testing for antibodies in their blood. This provided valuable insights and thanks to the interest of the Scottish education workforce, this survey was able to include more than 20,000 people, making it the largest study of COVID-19 in the education workforce in the UK.

We were also able to set up a data linkage study that could look at the risk of COVID-19 specifically for teachers, which included the risk of hospitalisation, admission to intensive care, and death, in education staff compared with the general public. Results were encouraging that there was no greater risk of severe illness for teachers than that in the general public. As part of this study, we were also able to look at vaccination rates in teachers which showed high uptake. This is also encouraging as we start the new school term because it indicates that risks related to COVID-19 are reduced even further, as we know that the vaccines provide a high level of protection against becoming seriously ill.   

Throughout the 2020-21 school year, our dashboard, bespoke surveillance studies and routine evidence reviews helped us understand the impact of COVID-19 on children and young people as well as education staff both in Scotland and elsewhere. Collectively, these outputs have provided timely and crucial public health evidence intended to help minimise disruptions to the school day. For example, our work on transmission has informed recent changes in contact tracing guidance to reduce the numbers of children who are required to self-isolate.  These changes take account of the situations in which transmission is most likely to occur alongside the impact of the vaccination programme in preventing severe disease.

To keep Scotland on track and ensure schools are as safe as possible, we all need to continue to do our part. The ways we can do this are to take up the COVID-19 vaccination when offered; self-isolate take a PCR test when showing COVID-19 symptoms; and take part in regular Lateral Flow Device testing when asymptomatic, especially when you receive a warn and inform letter.

Last updated: 19 August 2021