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School Closures May not Have Much Impact on COVID-19 Deaths

Evidence shows demographic structure and age-specific contacts play an essential role in the epidemic.

City University of Hong Kong investigators, in collaboration with the Chinese Academy of Sciences and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, have reported that reducing fatal cases of the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) can be achieved without the need for social disruption, like the closing of schools, public and work spaces. The data was published in the journal Chaos.

Investigators from the study ran thousands of simulations of how New York City responded to the pandemic, including variations in social distancing behavior at schools and in the home, as well as in public and working places. In the simulations, they also considered age groups and found that the closing of schools provided no large benefit in preventing serve cases of the disease.

In addition, they found that one of the most important factors, especially among the elderly populations, was social distancing in public places.

"School only represents a small proportion of social contact. It is more likely that people get exposure to viruses in public facilities, like restaurants and shopping malls," Qingpeng Zhang, an author on the study said. "Since we focus here on the severe infections and deceased cases, closing schools contributes little if the elderly citizens are not protected in public facilities and other places."

Due to the dense population of New York City, the transmission of the virus in schools is significantly lower than general interactions that occur day-to-day in public spaces, as students are generally not as vulnerable to severe infections with COVID-19. However, allowing public spaces to remain open can allow young people to spread the virus to those who are more vulnerable like older populations.

Even though the study only looked at New York City, the investigators stated that the model can be extended to any city, simply by changing age and location parameters. They are confident that the model can help to inform local measures initiated by public health and other officials to control the transmission of COVID-19.

"These patterns are unique for different cities, and good practice in one city may not translate to another city,” Zhang said. "Given the age and location mixing patterns, there are so many variables to be considered, so the optimization is challenging. Our model is an attempt."