“Data on the benefit of school closures in the COVID-19 outbreak is limited but what we know shows that their impact is likely to be only small compared with other infection-control measures such as case isolation and is only effective when other social isolating measures are adhered to,” said UCL’s Russell Viner, the study’s lead author.
The paper found the economic costs and potential harms of closure to be “undoubtedly very high”.
“Children’s education is damaged and their mental health may suffer, family finances are affected, key workers may need to stay home to look after children and vulnerable children may suffer most,” Professor Viner said.
While the Morrison government has maintained the official medical advice is schools should remain open, state governments have pushed ahead with ending ordinary school operations while making provisions for disadvantaged students and children of essential workers.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison said last week the advice remained that children could go to school and noted commitments that “no child is being turned away” if they need supervision, even as a “dual model” now largely sees the vast majority of students doing distance learning.
Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews said on Tuesday morning: “If you can learn from home, you must learn from home.”
The NSW government is also encouraging parents to keep their children at home while promising schools were open for students in need.
Concerned about the spread of COVID-19, parents started pulling their children out of school in large numbers last month. The governments have also faced pressure from teachers’ unions concerned about the welfare of vulnerable staff, including the elderly and those with medical conditions.
Other epidemiologists and public health experts have backed widespread school closures as an important part of a comprehensive social distancing strategy.
The UCL-led research team, who analysed 16 studies of previous coronavirus outbreaks, said more work was urgently needed to understand the effectiveness of school closures and children’s susceptibility to COVID-19.
School system interventions to suppress the spread of COVID-19 might evolve to be “less drastic” as case numbers fall, the paper suggested, noting Taiwan had reopened schools relatively early in the outbreak while maintaining effective containment of the virus.
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Fergus Hunter is an education and communications reporter for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.