German study finds no evidence coronavirus spreads in schools

Justin Huggler
Children respect social distancing rules as they line up to enter the Petri primary school in Dortmund, western Germany, on May 7, 2020, as the school reopens for some pupils following lockdown due to the new coronavirus Covid-19 pandemic. - The primary schools in the western federal state of North Rhine-Westphalia reopened as planned for fourth-graders. (Photo by Ina FASSBENDER / AFP) (Photo by INA FASSBENDER/AFP via Getty Images) - INA FASSBENDER/AFP

Schools do not play a major role in spreading the coronavirus, according to the results of a German study released on Monday.

The study, the largest carried out on schoolchildren and teachers in Germany, found traces of the virus in fewer than 1 per cent of teachers and children.

Scientists from Dresden Technical University said they believe children may act as a “brake” on chains of infection.

Prof Reinhard Berner, the head of pediatric medicine at Dresden University Hospital and leader of the study, said the results suggested the virus does not spread easily in schools.

“It is rather the opposite,” Prof Berner told a press conference. “Children act more as a brake on infection. Not every infection that reaches them is passed on.”

The study tested 2,045 children and teachers at 13 schools — including some where there have been cases of the virus.  But scientists found antibodies in just 12 of those who took part.

“This means that the degree of immunization in the group of study participants is well below 1 per cent and much lower then we expected,” said Prof Berner. “This suggests schools have not developed into hotspots.”

The study was carried out at schools in three different districts in the region of Saxony. 

Students sit in a classroom of the Petri primary school in Dortmund, western Germany, on June 15, 2020 amid the novel coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic. - From June 15, 2020, all children of primary school age in the western federal state of North Rhine-Westphalia will once again be attending regular daily classes until the summer holidays. The distance rules and compulsory mouthguards are no longer applicable. (Photo by Ina FASSBENDER / AFP) (Photo by INA FASSBENDER/AFP via Getty Images) - INA FASSBENDER/AFP

The choice of Saxony is significant because it was the only one of Germany’s 16 states to reopen schools with full class sizes in May.

The decision was highly controversial at the time. Parents won the right to keep their children at home after a legal challenge, and the regional government ordered the study to determine whether the policy had been right.

The findings are likely to be the subject of much public debate in Germany, with full class sizes planned to resume at schools across the country after the summer holidays.

The study tested the blood of around 1,500 children aged between 14 and 18 and 500 teachers aged between 30 and 66 for antibodies to the virus.

Five of those who took part had previously tested positive for the virus. The study’s authors said the fact that only seven others were found to have antibodies suggested the virus did not spread rapidly in a school setting.

Another 24 of those who took party had family members who had tested positive, but only one of these was found to have developed antibodies.

“This means the majority of schoolchildren do not get infected themselves despite an infection in the household,” said Prof Berner. 

“We have to take this finding into account when deciding on measures to limit social contact.”

The study was carried out at 13 schools in the districts of Dresden, Bautzen and Görlitz in May and June.

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