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).
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.
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.
Compared with adults, children 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.”