The researchers — from Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, the University of Cincinnati and the Pediatric Research in Inpatient Settings Network in Ohio — wrote in the study that “the analyses presented here suggest that the timing of school closure plays a role in the magnitude of changes associated with school closure.”
Extrapolating their findings to the US population, the researchers wrote in the study that “school closure may have been associated with approximately 1.37 million fewer cases of COVID-19 over a 26-day period and 40,600 fewer deaths over a 16-day period.”
However, the researchers note their findings can not necessarily apply to current debates around reopening schools since the conditions in the spring — when fewer people may have been wearing masks and social distancing — differ from now.
For instance, “it is unclear how COVID-19 spread would be affected if schools remained open while states enacted other policies to restrict movement,” the researchers wrote in the study. “It is possible school-related spread may be mitigated with infection-control interventions recommended by the CDC and the American Academy of Pediatrics, including frequent handwashing, universal mask policies, physical distancing measures, and increased sanitation procedures.”
Reopening schools ‘among the greatest challenges that the US has faced’
The new study involved examining the cumulative incidence of Covid-19 in each state per 100,000 people at the time of school closures. Those cumulative incidences for each state were separated into quartiles. The researchers used models to estimate differences in Covid-19 incidence and death between areas where schools closed and where schools remained open.
The modeling suggests that closing schools when the cumulative incidence of Covid-19 was in the lowest quartile compared with the highest quartile was associated with 128.7 fewer Covid-19 cases per 100,000 people within 26 days and 1.5 fewer Covid-19 deaths per 100,000 people over 16 days.
The study had some limitations, including that at the same time schools closed, other actions also were taken to reduce the spread of Covid-19 — such as closing nonessential businesses and increasing the use of hand sanitizers and handwashing. More research is needed to determine the role some of those other interventions may have played in the reduction in Covid-19 illnesses and deaths.
“The decision to reopen schools for in-person educational instruction during the fall of 2020 is among the greatest challenges that the US has faced in generations. The decision will have life-long implications for millions of children and their families,” Donohue and Miller wrote.
“In many parts of the country this has become a contentious issue, with children, their families, and teachers expressing strong opinions about what is best for them,” Donohue and Miller wrote. “There has rarely been a more important time for open discussion and collaboration with a goal of reaching consensus on reopening schools, while protecting the health and well-being of students and educators during the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Expert committee recommends ‘to prioritize reopening’
“As school districts weigh these risks, the committee recommended that the school districts make every effort to prioritize reopening with an emphasis on providing in-person instruction for students in kindergarten-grade 5 as well as those students with special needs who might be best served by in-person instruction,” Kenne Dibner and Heidi Schweingruber, both of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, and Dr. Dimitri Christakis of the University of Washington in Seattle, wrote in the paper.
The committee also “called for partnerships between school districts and public health officials so that reopening decisions, plans for mitigating spread of the virus when buildings open, and decisions about future closures are all informed by the best available epidemiological and public health data and evidence,” Dibner, Schweingruber and Christakis wrote in the paper.