School closures across the US from March to May may have saved more than 40,000 lives and led to a million fewer coronavirus cases, according to a new study.
The study, “Association Between Statewide School Closure and COVID-19 Incidence and Mortality in the US,” found that states that shut down schools earlier recorded the biggest declines per week at the time, compared with states that were slowest to close schools and reported the highest cumulative incidence of Covid-19.
According to the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, the University of Cincinnati and the Pediatric Research in Inpatient Settings Network in Ohio, “the analyses presented here suggest that the timing of school closure plays a role in the magnitude of changes associated with school closure.”
The researchers concluded that “school closure 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.”
However, they pointed out that their observations can not necessarily reflect on current debates around reopening schools since the situation in the spring, when fewer people may have been donning masks and social distancing, is different from today.
For instance, “it is unclear how COVID-19 spread would be affected if schools remained open while states enacted other policies to restrict movement,” according to the researchers.
“It is possible school-related spread may be mitigated with infection-control interventions recommended by the CDC and the American Academy of Pediatrics, including frequent handwashing, universal mask policies, physical distancing measures, and increased sanitation procedures,” they wrote in the study.
The team evaluated the cumulative incidence of Covid-19 in each state per 100,000 people at the time of school closures. They applied used models to assess differences in Covid-19 incidence and death between areas where schools shut down and where schools were still open.
According to the modeling, closing schools when the cumulative incidence of Covid-19 was in the lowest quartile compared with the highest quartile was linked to 128.7 fewer coronavirus cases per 100,000 people within 26 days and 1.5 fewer Covid-19 deaths per 100,000 people over 16 days.
However, the study presented limitations, including that at the same time schools closed, other measures were implemented to contain the spread of the virus, such as halting the operations of nonessential businesses and intensifying the use of hand sanitizers and handwashing.
Overall, school management must take into account the observations from the new study “in the context of an evolving evidence base” on the coronavirus, Julie Donohue and Dr. Elizabeth Miller, both of the University of Pittsburgh, wrote in an editorial that accompanied the new study in the journal JAMA on Wednesday.
“The decision to reopen schools for in-person educational instruction during the fall of 2020 is among the greatest challenges that the US has faced in generations. The decision will have life-long implications for millions of children and their families,” Donohue and Miller wrote.
“In many parts of the country this has become a contentious issue, with children, their families, and teachers expressing strong opinions about what is best for them,” Donohue and Miller added. “There has rarely been a more important time for open discussion and collaboration with a goal of reaching consensus on reopening schools, while protecting the health and well-being of students and educators during the COVID-19 pandemic.”