Coronavirus: How do we reopen schools safely?

School closures have high 'national costs' and they are likely to only have a limited impact on virus spread, says study

Catherine Lough

Blended learning: Teaching live online lessons from an empty classroom

A new study suggests that staggered school start times or playground closures could be necessary when schools reopen and that there may only be a marginal impact on the spread of the virus from closing schools.

The study – School closure and management practices during coronavirus outbreaks including COVID-19: a rapid narrative systematic review – published today, found that data collected from the Sars epidemic in 2003 showed closing schools did not have a significant impact in stopping the spread of the disease.

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One model using Sars data showed that "school closure, as an isolated measure, was predicted to reduce total deaths by only around 2-4% during a Covid-19 outbreak in the UK".

Coronavirus: The impact of school closures

Professor Russell Viner, one of the authors of the study, said preventative measures might be necessary in order to reopen schools.

“Policymakers need to be aware of the equivocal evidence when considering school closures for COVID-19 given the profound and long-lasting effect they will have on children – particularly the most disadvantaged.

“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.”

He added, “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 only 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."

A previous study by King's College London found that pupils continued to mix during pandemic school closures.

The study published today also highlights 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".

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author bio

Catherine Lough

Catherine Lough is a reporter at Tes.

Find me on Twitter @CathImogenLough

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