Here’s how many lives were saved by the decision to close schools last spring

school closings for coronavirus
Photo via Dan Gaken/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

The decision to close down schools in mid-March saved tens of thousands of lives, according to a recently released study. The study, published on July 29 in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), focuses on a six-week period in the spring of 2020. The findings show that school closings for the coronavirus helped immensely to keep down infections and deaths resulting from COVID-19. 

The study comes as schools country-wide are considering and, in some cases, beginning the process of reopening. Arguments against restarting schools in person have been circulating on social media for weeks. Many people point to the small classroom spaces and poor ventilation as reasons to delay reopening. Schools are an important part of most children’s lives, however, and the structure they provide can be crucial. Some children lack access to consistent meals without the structure of a school week, and COVID-19 is rarely lethal for children. The adults that come along with school life, however—like teachers, janitors, and cafeteria workers—are at far higher risk.

In the six-week period examined in the study, researchers found that schools closing because of the coronavirus may be associated with “approximately 1.37 million fewer cases of COVID-19 over a 26-day period and 40,600 fewer deaths over a 16-day period.” States that enacted distancing measures—including school closures—earliest saw the most substantial decline. States that shut down schools early saw a 72% decrease in new COVID-19 cases, as opposed to states that kept schools open later. Those states saw a decrease closer to 49%.

It is notable that the time period examined in the study coincided with limitations placed on many other aspects of public life, including closures of restaurants, bars, and non-essential businesses. These closures, along with strict social distancing measures, may have affected the study’s findings. 

The data, authors acknowledged, may not be broadly applicable in August 2020. “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,” Dr. Katherine Auger, the lead author of the study who’s an associate professor of pediatrics at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital, told the New York Times

Most schools looking to reopen for the fall will do so with far stricter safety measures. 

Regardless of this fact, researchers believe the data shows that any school reopenings should pause to consider the threat COVID-19 might present to their communities. The decision to reopen will likely vary from state to state as officials weigh the pros and cons. Many parents, struggling to find time for both work and their children, would welcome a return to normal. Some parents—and many teachers—still have concerns over safety, however, and would prefer to err on the side of caution.

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Sources: New York Times, Business Insider, CNN, JAMA

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