School closures may do little to reduce the spread of coronavirus, a new modeling study suggests.
Researchers found that preventing in-person learning only lowered the number of infections among young people by four percent in New York City.
By comparison, social distancing of the entire population in public places lowered the number of cases and deaths by as much as 50 percent.
The team, from City University of Hong Kong and the Institute of Automation at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing, says its findings show how cases and fatalities can be achieved ‘without the need for so much social disruption.’
Researchers from Hong Kong and Beijing looked at the impacts of the closures of various types of facilities, including schools, workplaces and public facilities in New York City in 2020. Pictured: Kindergartners, including Destin Saley (right) space out at tables during class Tat Park Brook Elementary School in Brooklyn Park, New York City, January 19
Social distancing of the entire population in public places (red line) lowered the number of coronavirus cases by 47% and deaths by 51% while school closures were found to be hardly effective (yellow line), only lowering the number of COVID-19 infections by 4%
Models showed that school-age children (second from left) have few contacts during the day and many more contacts are made at workplaces (second from right) and other public facilities (far right)
‘School only represents a small proportion of social contact…It is more likely that people get exposure to viruses in public facilities, like restaurants and shopping malls,’ said co-author Dr Qingpeng Zhang from the School of Data Science at City University of Hong Kong.
‘Since we focus here on the severe infections and deceased cases, closing schools contributes little if the elderly citizens are not protected in public facilities and other places.’
For the study, published in the journal Chaos, the team looked at the impacts of the closures of various types of facilities in New York City known as non-pharmaceutical interventions in 2020.
Overall. these control policies reduced the number of coronavirus infections by 72 percent and the number of deaths by 76 percent.
However, the researchers set tout to see which closures had the most impact in the Big Apple.
They ran thousands of simulation with variations in social distancing behavior at home, in schools, at public facilities, and in the workplace.
School closures were almost ineffective and was found to reduce as many cases as if there were no control at all.
Closing classrooms was found to reduce the number of infections in people below age 25 by just about four percent.
This is because school-age children are the least vulnerable age group, have the fewest contact and make up a small percentage of the U.S. population.
In fact, 40 percent of all contact are between people aged 25 and 65 with their own age group, let alone contact between them and other age groups.
They add that, because New York City is so densely populated, the effects of school closures are smaller than day-to-day interactions.
‘Students may bridge the connection between vulnerable people, but these people are already highly exposed in public facilities,’ Zhang said.
‘In other cities where people are much more distanced, the results may change.’
However, social distancing in public places, particularly among the elderly, was found to be the most important.
Social distancing for the entire population in all public places reduced infections in New York City by 47 percent and deaths by 51 percent.
Among senior citizens – who are among the most-high risk groups – it reduced total infections and deaths each by 47 percent, but not so much for other age groups.
The team adds that, although its study was specific to New York, the model can be used in other cities by replacing the age and location to determine ‘ideal control measures with minimal social disruptions.’
The findings echo calls made by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to open schools for in-person learning.
During a White House news briefing on COVID-19 last week, CDC director Dr Rochelle Walensky said teachers do not need to get vaccinated before schools can safely reopen.
‘There is increasing data to suggest that schools can safely reopen and that safe reopening does not suggest that teachers need to be vaccinated,’ she said.
‘Vaccinations of teachers is not a prerequisite for safely reopening schools.’
In an interview that aired on CBS on Sunday, President Joe Biden said the CDC could lay out the requirements for schools to reopen as early as Wednesday.