School Re-Opening and COVID-19 Research

Post Date: August 24, 2020

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Post co-authored by Katherine Auger, MD, MSc, Patrick Brady, MD, MSc, and Samir Shah, MD, MSCE

In the spring of 2020, all 50 states closed schools in hopes of slowing down the spread of coronavirus-19 disease (COVID-19). School closure disrupted children’s lives in multiple ways not just interrupting learning but also changing the ways students and families received important services such as meals and therapies. Many parents also changed their routines to stay home and supervise children out of school.

What we know about school closure from Spring 2020

A new study in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) demonstrated an association between closing schools in the spring of 2020 and 1.37 million fewer COVID-19 cases and 40,600 fewer deaths over the next couple of weeks. This study used mathematical modeling to understand the association of school closure while accounting for other policy changes such as stay at home orders and state characteristics like how many young people live in the state.

The study also showed that states that closed their schools early, when the number of COVID-19 cases in the state were still low, had the largest relative change associated with school closure. These states had fewer COVID-19 cases and deaths over a 6-week period compared with states who closed their schools later. 

What does this study say about school opening in the fall?
  • The number of cases in a community is important when deciding whether or not to reopen schools. Our findings support what the American Academy of Pediatrics and other expert organizations recommend with regard to understanding what is happening in the community in order to reopen schools. Communities should work together by wearing masks, increasing physical distancing, and staying home when not well or when exposed to COVID-19 to keep numbers down in the community so schools can open in a manner that minimizes risk to teachers and to students and their families.
  • Prevention measures in the classroom are essential. While closing schools in the spring of 2020 was associated with a large decline in cases and deaths from COVID-19, schools in the spring of 2020 had not yet implemented ways to stop virus spread. Schools should implement the prevention guidelines recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics including universal mask wearing, increasing physical distances between children, more frequent handwashing, and more frequent cleaning of surfaces. The American Academy of Pediatrics also recommends maintaining small groups of children to the extent possible. If schools do not implement these changes, our study suggests that the number of cases and deaths will rise.
  • Closing schools could be effective in the future. In-person education is a fundamental part of normal childhood development. However, if the number of COVID-19 cases in a community surges, closing in-person school may well be an effective intervention to bring case numbers back down. Alternatively, communities could first elect to close other businesses which would likely reduce community COVID-19 cases and facilitate keeping schools open.

Roles of schools and beating COVID-19

  • Schools are learning champions. Children are master emulators. They learn social norms through interacting with adults and OTHER children in schools. By implementing changes in the classroom, such as always wearing masks and increasing personal space, children will learn the best COVID-19 prevention steps. Kids can help lead the way in demonstrating COVID-19 safe behaviors!
  • Schools help children and families in many ways. The pandemic has put strain on many families. In addition to education and critical roles in children’s social and emotional development, schools provide meals to many children, therapy services to children with special health care needs, as well as a safe place for children during the day, allowing parents and caregivers to work. Safely reopening schools—and keeping them open—is a critical priority!