Transmission of SARS-CoV-2 in Australian educational settings: a prospective cohort study

Citation

Kristine Macartney, Helen E Quinn, Alexis J Pillsbury, Archana Koirala, Lucy Deng, Noni Winkler, Anthea L Katelaris, Matthew V N O’Sullivan, Craig Dalton, Nicholas Wood, and the NSW COVID-19 Schools Study Team

Lancet Child and Adolescent Health, published online 3 August 2020. DOI: 10.1016/S2352-4642(20)30251-0

Background

School closures have occurred globally during the COVID-19 pandemic. However, empiric data on transmission of severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) among children and in educational settings are scarce. In Australia, most schools have remained open during the first epidemic wave, albeit with reduced student physical attendance at the epidemic peak. We examined SARS-CoV-2 transmission among children and staff in schools and early childhood education and care (ECEC) settings in the Australian state of New South Wales (NSW).

Methods

Laboratory-confirmed paediatric (aged ≤18 years) and adult COVID-19 cases who attended a school or ECEC setting while considered infectious (defined as 24 h before symptom onset based on national guidelines during the study period) in NSW from Jan 25 to April 10, 2020, were investigated for onward transmission. All identified school and ECEC settings close contacts were required to home quarantine for 14 days, and were monitored and offered SARS-CoV-2 nucleic acid testing if symptomatic. Enhanced investigations in selected educational settings included nucleic acid testing and SARS-CoV-2 antibody testing in symptomatic and asymptomatic contacts. Secondary attack rates were calculated and compared with state-wide COVID-19 rates.

Findings

15 schools and ten ECEC settings had children (n=12) or adults (n=15) attend while infectious, with 1448 contacts monitored. Of these, 633 (43·7%) of 1448 had nucleic acid testing, or antibody testing, or both, with 18 secondary cases identified (attack rate 1·2%). Five secondary cases (three children; two adults) were identified (attack rate 0·5%; 5/914) in three schools. No secondary transmission occurred in nine of ten ECEC settings among 497 contacts. However, one outbreak in an ECEC setting involved transmission to six adults and seven children (attack rate 35·1%; 13/37). Across all settings, five (28·0%) of 18 secondary infections were asymptomatic (three infants [all aged 1 year], one adolescent [age 15 years], and one adult).

Interpretation

SARS-CoV-2 transmission rates were low in NSW educational settings during the first COVID-19 epidemic wave, consistent with mild infrequent disease in the 1·8 million child population. With effective case-contact testing and epidemic management strategies and associated small numbers of attendances while infected, children and teachers did not contribute significantly to COVID-19 transmission via attendance in educational settings. These findings could be used to inform modelling and public health policy regarding school closures during the COVID-19 pandemic.