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Distancing more effective than school closures in reducing COVID-19 deaths: study

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As more children in Canada’s largest province of Ontario resumed in-class learning this week, a new study has questioned the effectiveness of school closures in reducing COVID-19 deaths.

The peer-reviewed research published in the American Institute of Physics Tuesday studied the pandemic response in New York City and found that the school closure policy had little to no impact on the total number of coronavirus cases and deaths.

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In comparison, physical distancing for the entire population in public facilities was more effective, reducing 47 per cent of infections and 51 per cent of deaths related to COVID-19

“In the model, it shows that the contact rate in other places (outside of schools) will be mainly responsible for the infection of the elderly, who are vulnerable,” Qingpeng Zhang, study author and associate professor at the City University of Hong Kong, told Global News.

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“Therefore, school closure isn’t as effective (in reducing COVID-19 deaths) as one might expect if other public places do not have proper social distancing measures.”

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The study found that closing schools only slightly reduced — by four per cent — the number of infections among the population aged 25 and under.

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The state of New York was severely stricken in the early stages of the pandemic last spring. As of Wednesday, it had a higher number of COVID-19 deaths reported — 45,140 — than any other U.S. state, according to a Johns Hopkins University tally.

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Since January, several provinces in Canada have resumed in-person learning at schools.

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The emergence of new, possibly more contagious variants as kids go back into classrooms has raised concern among parents and teachers.

Dr. Earl Rubin, a pediatric infectious diseases specialist at the Montreal Children’s Hospital of the McGill University Health Centre, said it was important to look at each community’s case levels before making a decision about reopening.

According to him, schools can play a role in COVID-19 transmission, but it is difficult to know the exact impact, he said.

“If the schools implement and enforce the strategies to mitigate the transmission among the students, I think the benefits of opening schools outweigh the risks,” Rubin told Global News.

The United Nations says the pandemic has caused the largest disruption in education in history, with more than a billion students affected since July last year.

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