THURSDAY, July 30, 2020 — Closing schools in the spring may have saved tens of thousands of lives by preventing coronavirus infections, the New York Times reports.
This study comes at a time when schools are set to reopen in only a few weeks, but the debate as to whether schools can be opened safely goes on.
The study looked at a six-week period in the spring. It found that school closings “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.”
“At the time, there wasn’t any masking in schools, there wasn’t physical distancing, there wasn’t an increase in hygiene and that sort of thing,” researcher Dr. Katherine Auger, an associate professor of pediatrics at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital, told the Times. “The findings of our studies took place before any of those measures were in.”
Dr. Auger believes that reopening schools should depend on how much COVID-19 cases are in the community. “Are there a lot of cases right now, is it a hot spot, is it an outbreak, is it a surge?” Auger said. The American Academy of Pediatrics guidelines “emphasize making sure that the community numbers are reasonable before trying to open schools, and I think this manuscript sort of bolsters that a bit,” she said.
Some experts say, however, that the effect of concurrent stay-at-home orders, closure of restaurants and nonessential businesses, and limits on large social gatherings makes it hard to know the specific role school closures had in curbing cases.
“I think we have to be incredibly cautious when interpreting estimates from a study like this,” Julie Donohue, a professor of public health at the University of Pittsburgh who coauthored an editorial, told the Times. “In particular, I think it’s important to emphasize that we really can’t isolate the impact of school closures from other interventions.”
“Even if these numbers were accurate or valid, we don’t know how much of the effect would be derived from reducing contacts among kids at school, versus reducing contacts among parents who have to stay home from work because their children are out of school.”
Based on these findings, some people may worry that schools can’t be safely opened.
“I do worry that these large estimates of the effect of school closures will lead people to give up because it is going to be challenging to open schools,” Donohue said. “I do worry that some districts will look at these numbers and say, well, it’s just too hard and it’s not safe to reopen.”
Researcher Dr. Samir Shah, a professor of pediatrics and director of the division of hospital medicine at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital, told the Times that “It’s not simply a decision of, what is the risk of COVID. It also has to factor in what are the benefits versus harms of not having children in school in person.”
The report was published July 29 in the Journal of the American Medical Association.
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