“Data from the SARS outbreak in mainland China, Hong Kong, and Singapore suggest that school closures did not contribute to the control of the epidemic,” the researchers said.
But while their symptoms may be mild compared to those experienced by adults with the virus, children can still spread Covid-19 to more vulnerable people, which is why many governments took the decision to shut schools.
According to UNESCO, nationwide school closures are currently impacting over 91% of the world’s student population — roughly 1.6 billion children and young adults. The UN agency said that 188 countries have implemented nationwide closures.
This isn’t something policymakers decided on a whim. Past experiences have shown that shutting schools early in a seasonal flu epidemic can help slow down the spread of the disease and reduce the number of people who get sick. But the UCL study suggests that while this may be true for the flu — which tends to be spread by children — it doesn’t necessary hold true for outbreaks of other diseases.
The scientists suggest that policymakers should consider other “less disruptive social distancing interventions in schools,” especially if the pandemic-related restrictions need to be in place for a long time.
Keeping schools open for the children of key workers, or staggering school start and finish times, may be a way forward. Close monitoring of students’ health, for example through temperature checks, and sending kids with symptoms home, could be another solution.
But some experts have warned against jumping to conclusions based on one study.
“While school closure as a measure on its own is predicted to have a limited effectiveness in controlling Covid-19 transmission, when combined with intense social distancing it plays an important role in severing remaining contacts between households, and thus ensuring transmission declines,” he said.
When considering whether or not to shut schools, policymakers must balance the need to protect public health with the huge disruptive effects such closures can cause.
Scientists are increasingly warning of the potential impact of long-term school closures on the mental health and wellbeing of children, warning that more research is needed.
With children forced to stay at home, a large proportion of working parents are likely to miss work.
Another common solution — leaving children with their grandparents — is particularly risky in the case of Covid-19, as the elderly are among those most vulnerable to the virus.