Does closing schools provide any benefit to the general public during the Coronavirus pandemic?
A paper published by UCL suggests keeping pupils off school has little impact, even with other lockdown measures during Coronavirus.
Misinformation and fake news
“Much of the scholarship on fake news focuses on narrow forms of news communication” (Higdon, 2020). This can broadly be true of how the BBC reported this research on 7th April: “This is an important study that confirms what many of us suspected, namely that the public health benefits of school closures were not proportionate to the social and economic costs” (BBC, April 2020). I have two thoughts:
- Define proportionate.
- Would we rather profit in our economy or protect the lives of our young people?
Where is the evidence?
A recommendation from one of the research authors, Professor Viner, said: “There’s a whole range of things that schools could do to reopen in a way that involves social distancing at schools but keeps schools open.” School closures were deployed rapidly across mainland China and Hong Kong for COVID-19. However, there are no data on the relative contribution of school closures to transmission control and “strong evidence is not available for the effectiveness of these practices.”
How was this evidence gathered?
Published in The Lancet Child and Adolescent Health, the academics recommended that “policymakers need to be aware of the equivocal evidence when considering school closures for COVID-19” in comparison to how journalists report the headlines and the misinform the general public. The research reports that 107 countries had implemented national school closures by March 18, 2020.
Of great importance when considering any research is to understand how the findings were evaluated. The researchers screened 616 articles and used 16. You can view the methodology here. The researchers searched the WHO Global Research Database on COVID-19 using the term “school”, which only retrieved one article which was excluded from the results. Therefore, they searched again using the search terms “child”, “children”, “childhood”, “infant”, “baby”, “babies”, “pediatric”, and “paediatric”.
For school closures
As cited in the paper:
- School closure presents an apparently common-sense method of dramatically reducing spread of disease.
- A rapid review found evidence that, during unplanned school closures, children’s activities and contacts decreased but did not cease, with some evidence that this was particularly so among older children and those whose parents disagreed with closures
- Staying open for vulnerable pupils and children of health-care workers? This is a less strict intervention than school closure, although there is no evidence supporting its use separately to full closure
- School closures are based on evidence and assumptions from influenza outbreaks that they reduce social contacts between students and therefore interrupt the transmission
- The evidence for the effectiveness of school closures and other school social distancing measures comes almost entirely from influenza outbreaks, for which transmission of the virus tends to be driven by children
- Four systematic reviews of the effects of school closure on influenza outbreaks or pandemics suggest that school closure can be a useful control measure, although the effectiveness of mass school closures is often low.
- A 2020 systematic review of school closures and other social distancing measures during influenza outbreaks also found compelling evidence that closures reduced transmission, particularly among school-aged children
- Evidence of COVID-19 transmission through child–child contact or through schools is not yet available.
Against school closures
As cited in the paper:
- Currently, the evidence to support the national closure of schools to combat COVID-19 is very weak.
- In previous coronavirus outbreaks, evidence suggested that transmission in schools was very low or absent; there was no evidence of spread of the infection in schools (Source)
- Emerging epidemiological data suggest little evidence of transmission of COVID-19 through schools in China
- Evidence from the coronavirus outbreak control is scarce, we must turn to evidence for the benefits of school closures from influenza epidemics and pandemics.
What is critical for policymakers to know is there is a lack of evidence. Two, economic costs are high for everyone, not just those directly affected by school closures. Three, it is too early to understand the benefits of school closures and how this relates to the costs or attainment.
Any form of speculation is unhelpful and interpreting research is critical when making key decisions. For example, who has conducted any research on the impact of school workers? Only yesterday, the Department for Education suggested that teachers do not require personal protective equipment!
I want our schools to reopen as much any parent, teacher or politician, particularly for our disadvantaged pupils, but if we want everyone to isolate to help reduce the pandemic, this includes our pupils and schools too.
Download the full paper.