School closures may not help prevent the spread of the coronavirus, and some experts say they do more harm than good

School closures may not help prevent the spread of the coronavirus, and some experts say they do more harm than good
A teacher wearing a protective face mask teaches schoolchildren in a classroom at a private school during its reopening in Saint-Sebastien-sur-Loire, France, as a small part of French children head back to their schools with new rules and social distancing, May 12, 2020.Stephane Mahe/Reuters

Many countries have begun to reopen schools following coronavirus-induced lockdowns, but more than 1 billion children across the globe are still stuck at home, signing onto classes online or forgoing education altogether.

In late March, global school closures affected 91.3% of the world's enrolled learners, according to a UNESCO tally that includes all education levels, from early childhood to doctoral degrees. As of Wednesday, that was down to 69.4%, which still means at least 1.2 billion students worldwide are affected.

But these closures may do little to prevent the virus's spread, two Italian pediatric doctors argue in an opinion letter published Wednesday in the journal JAMA Pediatrics.

"It is even possible that school closure may have negative effects and lead to greater medical, economic, and social problems," Dr. Susanna Esposito, of the University of Parma, and Dr. Nicola Principi, of the University of Milan, wrote in the letter.

According to Esposito and Principi, models indicate that closing primary and secondary schools helps stop the spread of flu viruses, which infect children at higher rates than the coronavirus, even though the flu has a lower rate of spread. But school closures don't seem to have the same effect on the coronavirus, so they may not be worth the detrimental effects to children and their families.


"While the efficacy of school closure is debatable, the potential negative consequences of this measure cannot be ignored," Esposito and Principi wrote.

Taiwan contained the coronavirus without closing schools

School closures may not help prevent the spread of the coronavirus, and some experts say they do more harm than good
Pupils sit in desks with yellow dividers, set up as a measure against the coronavirus, at Dajia Elementary school in Taipei, Taiwan, March 13, 2020.Ann Wang/Reuters

Experts and analysts have hailed Taiwan as a shining example of timely and well-measured COVID-19 response.

Taiwanese officials acted quickly as the outbreak emerged in Wuhan, China, in January. They implemented travel restrictions and leveraged technology and data tracking to identify cases and trace infected peoples' contacts. As of Wednesday, the country has reported only 440 COVID-19 cases and seven deaths. It has effectively contained the virus.

Though Taiwan schools extended winter break by 10 days in February, they never shut down. To Esposito and Principi, this confirms "the poor relevance" of school closures.


They added that in Taiwan, each infected student spread the virus to an average of less than one other person (though Business Insider could not independently verify this measure). That rate isn't high enough for the virus to sustain itself within the school, and it indicates some infected students didn't spread the virus at all.

School closures also appeared to have little impact during the outbreak of SARS, another coronavirus that swept from East Asia to more than two dozen countries in 2003. An analysis published April 6 reviewed 16 studies on school closures during past coronavirus outbreaks, including SARS. The authors concluded that "the evidence to support national closure of schools to combat COVID-19 is very weak."

What's more, a team of UK researchers modeled COVID-19 intervention measures using data from Wuhan, and found that school closures would prevent only 2-4% of deaths, meaning they're much less impactful than other social-distancing measures.

School closures hurt kids and the economy

School closures may not help prevent the spread of the coronavirus, and some experts say they do more harm than good
A classroom in the Milton-Union Exempted Village School District in West Milton, Ohio, is seen empty ahead of statewide school closures to curb the spread of the coronavirus, March 13, 2020.Kyle Grillot/Reuters

As schools shuttered across the US over the last couple of months, millions of children were left without their most reliable source of meals, since school lunches can serve as the only full meal of the day for many students. School districts scrambled to implement programs that could replace that.


In general, school closures have also exacerbated existing inequalities. Many low-incomes families do not have the wifi or computers necessary to keep up with online schoolwork. A recent survey from Pew Research Center found that 36% of low-income parents said their children likely cannot complete their schoolwork during coronavirus closures. Just 14% of middle-income and 4% of upper-income parents said the same.

School closures may not help prevent the spread of the coronavirus, and some experts say they do more harm than good
Felix Hassebroek watches his sisters play in the backyard of their Brooklyn home at the end of their first week of home school, after New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed an executive order closing public schools statewide, March 20, 2020.Caitlin Ochs/Reuters

"In the end, the low-income students will be hurt the most by these school closures," Bill Gates said in April on CNBC's Squawk Box.

There are also economic consequences. If every school in America were to close its doors, it would cost the economy $51.1 billion a month, according to an analysis by New York University epidemiology professor Joshua Epstein.

"A lot of parents would miss work to care for their kids, and those people are subtracted from the labor force," Epstein told Business Insider Today.


Reopening could put teachers in a bind

School closures may not help prevent the spread of the coronavirus, and some experts say they do more harm than good
Kaipara Flats School teacher Sharon Brown sanitizes the classroom equipment ahead of a small number of children returning on April 28, 2020 in Auckland, New Zealand.Fiona Goodall/Getty Images

Reopening schools, however, could force many teachers to make a difficult decision about whether to continue their jobs and risk exposure to the virus, especially if they face a higher chance of severe illness.

"What is super complicated is this question of, who decides if it's safe for these teachers to come back?" John Bailey, who co-authored a report about a looming school staffing crisis, told Chalkbeat. "What happens if a school says we believe it's safe and a teacher believes it's not? How does that get arbitrated and resolved? I don't think there's clear systems and processes there yet."

Bailey's report, published by the right-leaning American Enterprise Institute, recommended that schools offer early retirement incentives and create new roles for teachers who need to stay home.

An expert task force could help states reopen schools in fall

School closures may not help prevent the spread of the coronavirus, and some experts say they do more harm than good
Young pupils gather at the courtyard of their Vikåsen school in Trondheim, Norway, after the school reopened on April 27, 2020.Gorm Kallestad/NTB Scanpix/Getty Images


In the same issue of JAMA Pediatrics, editor Dr. Dimitri Christakis made a plea for US lawmakers to start the process of reopening schools.

"The risks posed by delaying school openings are real and sizeable, particularly for students from low-income families," Christakis, who is the director of the Center for Child Health, Behavior and Development at Seattle Children's Research Institute, wrote in the editorial.

Christakis expressed concern that states are beginning to reopen workplaces — which pose a much higher risk for spread than classrooms — while cancelling schools for the remainder of the year. He noted that the White House coronavirus task force has given little attention to schools in its daily briefings.

"To help inform states and counties that are struggling to make this enormously consequential and urgent decision regarding the fall semester, an expert task force focusing exclusively on school closure should be convened immediately," Christakis wrote.

He recommended that this task force include epidemiologists and other infectious-disease experts, as well as education scientists and child psychologists.


"Using all existing and emerging data — however incomplete — they should make their best-informed recommendations to help states make this crucial decision, based on science and not politics, as soon as possible," Christakis added. "We owe this to our children."

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