Closing schools doesn’t help reduce COVID-19 deaths, surprising study reveals

WASHINGTON — As children in various states continue to adjust to remote learning, a new study finds heading back to class may not be such a concern after all. Researchers say closing schools during the pandemic does not significantly reduce the number of serious coronavirus infections and deaths.

The study, released by the American Institute of Physics, finds social distancing is most important when it comes to reducing severe COVID cases while creating minimal social disruption. School closures, the loss of public spaces, and having to work from home on the other hand, have caused major disruptions in people’s social lives worldwide.

The new findings suggest curbing the rise in fatal coronavirus cases is possible without the need for such social disruptions.

“School only represents a small proportion of social contact,” study author Dr. Qingpeng Zhang says in a media release.

“It is more likely that people get exposure to viruses in public facilities, like restaurants and shopping malls. 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.”

School closures won’t help more vulnerable patients

School COVID cases
Comparing the number of asymptomatic, mild, severe, and deceased coronavirus cases in each age group with different levels of social distancing enforcement. “Actual NPIs” (blue) represents the nonpharmaceutical intervention procedures implemented in New York City.

Researchers ran thousands of simulations on the pandemic response in New York City. They looked at variations in social distancing behavior at home, in schools, at public facilities, and in the workplace. The study also considered the differences in interactions between different age groups; leading to some stunning results. The team reveals school closures are not largely beneficial in preventing serious COVID-19 cases.

“Less surprisingly, social distancing in public places, particularly among elderly populations, is the most important,” Dr. Zhang adds.

Since New York City is so densely populated, study authors say the effect of closing schools is significantly smaller than general day-to-day interactions in public. Students are generally the least vulnerable to severe infections. However, keeping public spaces open allows for spreading to occur from less vulnerable young people to more vulnerable, older populations.

“Students may bridge the connection between vulnerable people, but these people are already highly exposed in public facilities,” Dr. Zhang continues. “In other cities where people are much more distanced, the results may change.”

Not every city will see the same results

Though the current findings are specific to New York, replacing the age and location parameters in the model can extend its results to any city. This will help determine the ideal local control measures to contain the pandemic with minimal social disruptions.

“These patterns are unique for different cities, and good practice in one city may not translate to another city,” the associate professor at City University of Hong Kong says.

While these findings have promising implications, the researchers emphasize the study is still just a model and cannot capture the intricacies and subtle details of real life interactions to a perfect extent. The inclusion of mobile phone, census, transportation, or other data in the future can help inform a more realistic decision.

“Given the age and location mixing patterns, there are so many variables to be considered, so the optimization is challenging. Our model is an attempt,” Dr. Zhang concludes.

Researchers from the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York contributed to the study.

The team discuss the impacts of such closures in the journal Chaos: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Nonlinear Science.

SWNS writer Laura Sharman contributed to this report.