The economic costs of closing schools could outweigh the “very weak” evidence supporting a policy that has been used by dozens of governments to combat the spread of Covid-19.
Governments across the world have in recent weeks moved to close schools and other education centres as part of national efforts to contain the spread of the coronavirus and keep pressure on health services at a minimum at a time when infections and deaths continue to rise.
But new research carried out by University College London (UCL) has cast serious doubt on the efficacy of the widely used tactic.
“The evidence to support national closure of schools to combat Covid-19 is very weak,” said the research led by Russell Viner, a professor at Great Ormond Street Institute of Child Health, part of UCL.
“The economic costs and potential harms of school closure are undoubtedly very high.”
According to The Times, ministers in the UK government have cited the report in private conversations around whether it should look to re-open schools after the Easter break, which ends on 17 April.
According to UNESCO, 91% of the world’s learners – nearly 1.6 billion people, mostly of school age – have been affected by closures imposed in response to the Covid-19 pandemic.
But many parents, who are off work or working from home, have been negatively affected too, as they have been forced to juggle childcare roles and their jobs, while helping children with their home learning.
Several organisations have also warned of the wider risks of school closures to children, especially to those who see school as a safe haven from abusive households or rely on free meals provided by the state.
UCL’s research is an analysis of nine published academic studies and seven non-peer-reviewed publications that all examine the effects of school closures during pandemics, including this one and the 2003 SARS outbreak.
The research stresses that the majority of children who contract Covid-19 show no – or mild – symptoms and thus warns: “Policymakers need to be aware of the equivocal evidence when considering school closures.”
The study could be leveraged by government officials around the world to put pressure on education secretaries and leaders to consider re-opening schools as the pandemic continues.
Denmark this week announced plans to gradually re-open kindergartens and primary schools as part of wider plans to loosen restrictions on social distancing after the country saw a drop in the number of infections.