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Are school closures effective in stopping COVID-19? Researchers aren’t sure

Coronavirus: Families worry kids will fall behind in school due to online challenges
WATCH: Families worry kids will fall behind in school due to online challenges

When the new coronavirus reared its head in Canada and the world, forcing wide-ranging closures, schools were some of the early casualties.

While data on the effects of school closures during COVID-19 are limited and still underway, some researchers say evidence from influenza outbreaks and SARS suggest these closures may only have only a small impact on the spread of a virus.

More than 107 countries had implemented national school closures as of March 18, Canada included. It affects approximately 862 million children and young people, roughly half of the global student population, according to researchers at the University College London (UCL).

READ MORE: How many Canadians have the new coronavirus? Total number of confirmed cases by region

Their research, published April 6 in The Lancet Child and Adolescent Health, reviewed 16 previously published studies. Some of the studies looked at the seasonal flu and others the SARS outbreak of 2003.

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The findings suggest the benefit of school closures in the coronavirus outbreak will likely be small. During the SARS outbreak in China, Hong Kong and Singapore, the researchers claim school closures “did not contribute to the control of the epidemic.”

However, in a flu outbreak, the experts said school closures make sense because of how influenza is transmitted. The evidence behind the effectiveness of school closures come “almost entirely” from influenza outbreaks, the study says, where “transmission of the virus tends to be driven by children.”

“This is the opposite of COVID-19,” Russell Viner, an expert at UCL, who co-led the research, told Reuters.

Coronavirus: Distance learning begins for students across Ontario
Coronavirus: Distance learning begins for students across Ontario

Compared to adults, children are believed to be less likely to contract the new coronavirus. When they do, they typically have mild symptoms, if at all.

However, research is inconclusive on whether infected children are contagious and, if they are, just how contagious.

“If a child is infected but is asymptomatic, are they able to pass it to their family? It makes schools a tough issue to deal with because the household is the unit of analysis in our current social distancing paradigm,” said Craig Janes, the director of the School of Public Health and Health Systems at the University of Waterloo.

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“Because we don’t know for sure how prone children are, it leaves a big question that this study doesn’t answer.”

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READ MORE: Ontario parents, teachers say transition to e-learning will be a learning process

Janes said the study is hyperfocused on schools and fails to address the wide range of measures that Canada and other countries have enforced, including closures of non-essential businesses and stringent physical distancing rules.

“It’s hard to look at a particular intervention without considering the impact of other interventions,” he said. “It was wise to close the schools in combination with everything else, but as we learn more about the virus, it will help us understand more about the relative impacts of the school closures.”

Impact on learning

The researchers told Reuters the findings ultimately highlight a need for policymakers to be aware of the “profound long-lasting effect” school closures may have on children, suggesting they should open at the earliest opportunity.

Schools across Canada gradually began shutting their doors in mid-March. Ontario and Quebec expect them to remain closed until “at least” May. In British Columbia and Alberta, schools have been closed until further notice.

Provinces are attempting to provide resources to students online. It’s been a contentious issue for some school boards and educators, but increasingly becoming the only option.

Ask an Expert: E-Learning for students amid COVID-19
Ask an Expert: E-Learning for students amid COVID-19

“I think maybe this will help us to recognize that e-learning is not simple,” Annie Kidder, the executive director of advocacy and research group People for Education, told the Canadian Press recently. “It has to involve actual human beings that are teachers. There is a relationship component of learning.”

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Janes agreed that the study’s findings emphasize “important policy questions.” He said it serves as an important look into how Canada could enter a “recovery” phase in a post-COVID-19 world.

“It’s a significant thing to do socially. It has an impact on families, it has an impact on workers who can’t go back to work. It can be a tremendous drag on productivity and all those things,” he said.

“We’re still weeks off, but we do need to start thinking — ‘do we open up schools and how do we open them up in a way that is safe?”

READ MORE: How coronavirus is affecting kids on the spectrum and their parents

Looking ahead to that “recovery” phase in Canada is something Prime Minister Justin Trudeau touched on Thursday.

While Canada is still looking at 12 to 18 months of physical distancing and closures, Trudeau said “certain activities currently forbidden” could restart after the first wave of the virus.

“For a year, 18 months, there will be things we just aren’t able to do,” he said.

“We will be able to gradually restart economic activity somewhat more normal than now,” he said in French, “but we’ll still have to remain vigilant, however.”

He did not explicitly say whether schools would be part of the initial “restart.”

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What Taiwan did

In some countries, like Taiwan, school never went out of session.

Taiwan’s reasonings are similar to points made in the study — that healthy children are believed to be less likely to transmit and contract the disease — but their quick clampdown on travel, strict testing and fines for breaching quarantine measures also bolstered their decision.

Schools in Taiwan have remained opened since students returned to classes on Feb. 25, after an extended break, but under heightened measures. Schools with more than 1,000 students are required by the government to conduct temperature checks at 10 points of entry. In class and in lunchrooms, students sit with large plastic dividers between desks to keep them separated.

Coronavirus Outbreak: Why the number of COVID-19 cases are drastically different in Taiwan and Italy
Coronavirus Outbreak: Why the number of COVID-19 cases are drastically different in Taiwan and Italy

Taiwan has won praise from experts for how it has controlled the virus. It has only 380 cases and 5 deaths as of April 9, compared to more than 82,000 cases and over 3,000 deaths in its neighbour China.

Strict community measures are still in place throughout Taiwan to ensure the virus is contained.

But it’s all these measures combined that, at this point, is the “wise move” for Canada to curtail the spread, said Janes.

“We have to think of the pandemic in terms of systems. If you change one thing, other things might have to change as well,” he said.

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“Then there will be a phased recovery, and schools will be one of those first ones we need to think carefully about.”

— with files from Reuters