School closures have little impact on containing COVID-19, study shows

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School closures do not appear to have a significant effect on the spread of infection during coronavirus outbreaks such as Covid-19, but managing their re-opening will be crucial to how we restart society after lockdown, according to a new study led by researchers at UCL.

The systematic review, published yesterday, is the first study to look at the evidence and emerging data on the benefit of school closures a during pandemics such as SARS, MERS and Covid-19.

According to the UN’s education body, UNESCO, 91% of the world’s school pupils have been affected by closures. Schools in England have been closed since March 20th.

Highlighting that the proven benefits of school closures during influenza outbreaks cannot be applied to Covid-19, with its “high transmissibility and apparent low clinical effect on schoolchildren”, the study concludes that the marginal benefits of keeping children at home should be weighed against potentially damaging social and economic consequences.

Professor Russell Viner (UCL Great Ormond Street Institute of Child Health) said:

We know from previous studies that school closures are likely to have the greatest effect if the virus has low transmissibility and attack rates are higher in children. This is the opposite of COVID-19.

Data on the benefit of school closures in the COVID-19 outbreak is limited, but what we know shows that their impact is likely to be small compared to other infection control measures such as case isolation, and is only effective when other social isolating measures are adhered to.

Additionally, the costs of national school closures are high. Children’s education is damaged and their mental health may suffer, family finances are affected, keyworkers may need to stay home to look after children and vulnerable children may suffer most.

Despite the limited impact of closures, researchers emphasised that managing schools’ re-opening will be key to restarting society. Professor Viner said:

Countries that have closed schools, such as the UK, have to now ask hard questions about when and how to open schools. Interventions in schools, such as closing playgrounds, keeping students in constant class groups/classrooms; increasing spacing between students in classes, reducing the school week and staggering school start and break times across years or classes, should be considered, if restrictive social distancing policies are to be implemented for long periods of time.

Click here to read the study in full.

 

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