Reducing COVID-19 risk in schools: a qualitative examination of secondary school staff and family views and concerns in the South West of England.

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To investigate student, parent/carer and secondary school staff attitudes towards school COVID-19 mitigation measures.Recruitment used school communication, community organisations and snowball sampling in South West England. Audio recorded online or phone individual/group semi-structured interviews were conducted in July-Septtember 2020 and lasted 30-60 min. Interviews focused on views towards social distancing, hand hygiene and testing. Framework analysis was performed on interview notes/transcripts.Participants were 15 staff, 20 parents and 17 students (11-16 years) from 14 diverse schools. Concerns about COVID-19 risk at school, especially to vulnerable individuals, were outweighed by perceived risks of missed learning. Some staff felt guilt around being a potential ‘spreader’ by teaching multiple classes. Findings highlighted a wide variety of school COVID-19 mitigation measures being deployed due to ambiguous government guidance. Participants generally saw mitigation measures as an acceptable and pragmatic solution to the perceived impossibility of social distancing in crowded schools, although anticipated challenges changing habitual behaviour. Participants supported school COVID-19 testing but identified the need to consider data security and stigma around COVID-19 diagnosis. Staff were concerned about unintended consequences of risk-reduction strategies on student behaviour, learning and pastoral care, particularly for those with Special Educational Needs or mental health issues who may find the measures especially challenging, and resultant widening inequalities.Families and staff supported COVID-19 mitigation measures in schools and would welcome the roll out school COVID-19 testing. Clear messaging and engendering collective responsibility are important for compliance and success of COVID-19 mitigation measures. However, schools and policy-makers should consider unintended consequences of measures, providing extra support for vulnerable students and those with additional needs, and consider ways to avoid widening educational and health inequalities. Findings demonstrate the acceptability of school COVID-19 infection control measures is likely to be influenced by the balance of risks and benefits to students.

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Authors: Ava Lorenc, Joanna May Kesten, Judi Kidger, Rebecca Langford, Jeremy Horwood