A study published by pediatric researchers found that when many states decided to close schools for the remainder of the school year as COVID-19 began to break out in the United States, that decision may have saved tens of thousands of lives. The closure of school for over 55 million American K-12 may have been associated with 1.37 million fewer cases over a 26 day period and 40,600 fewer deaths over a 16 day period. And although that’s jaw-dropping, the study might not represent the full picture of school closures and their effect on community transmission of COVID-19.
Indeed, the researchers note that it’s hard to separate the effect of overall school closures from other measures that were undertaken in many states at the same time, such as mandatory stay-at-home orders, the mandatory closure of non-essential businesses like restaurants, bars, and salons, social distancing guidelines, mask orders, and hygiene guidelines that also limited the spread of COVID-19 at the same time. Many of those schools closed as health guidelines began to shift and people in general began to stay home and distance from others.
Still, the study found that even in places that closed schools that still had low rates of community transmission of COVID-19 saw a faster decline in new cases than those who had higher infection rates and waited to close. And, it’s important to note that when schools closed, no schools had enacted any safety guidelines that are now recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Centers for Disease Control.
“At the time, there wasn’t any masking in schools, there wasn’t physical distancing, there wasn’t an increase in hygiene and that sort of thing,” said lead author of the study, Dr. Katherine Auger, to The New York Times. Because of that, researchers are not necessarily suggesting that schools shouldn’t reopen in the fall, given that so much has changed in the level of knowledge around COVID-19 and on basic precautions that will be taken should schools reopen.