School Closures in the Spring Saved Lives, Study Asserts

But other experts noted that the impact of preventive measures taken by states — including stay-at-home orders, closures of restaurants and nonessential businesses and limits on large social gatherings — simultaneously or shortly after school closings, made it hard to determine the specific role of schools in such analyses.

“I think we have to be incredibly cautious when interpreting estimates from a study like this,” said Julie Donohue, a professor of public health at the University of Pittsburgh who co-wrote an editorial about the study. “In particular, I think it’s important to emphasize that we really can’t isolate the impact of school closures from other interventions.”

Dr. Donohue added that “even if these numbers were accurate or valid, we don’t know how much of the effect would be derived from reducing contacts among kids at school, versus reducing contacts among parents who have to stay home from work because their children are out of school.”

Given that the study is being published just as districts around the country are struggling with whether and how to reopen schools, some experts expressed concern that its estimates about the impact of closing schools early in the pandemic would be seized upon as an argument that schools should remain closed. Experts on public health and education have recommended that communities and schools should work toward reopening with strong health precautions in place, because in-person schooling has such tremendous value for children’s academic, social and emotional development.

“I do worry that these large estimates of the effect of school closures will lead people to give up because it is going to be challenging to open schools,” Dr. Donohue said. “I do worry that some districts will look at these numbers and say, well, it’s just too hard and it’s not safe to reopen.”

Analyses of cellphone mobility data in March, by The New York Times and others, revealed that people in some states began spending more time at home and less time congregating in public spaces days to weeks before official shelter-in-place orders were enacted.

In the new report, a research team led by Dr. Auger analyzed case counts and deaths in all 50 states beginning on March 7, before the first closings, and ending on May 7, six weeks after the last closing orders. Some states closed their schools a week or more before implementing a more comprehensive lockdown; others did so simultaneously, or close to it. Covid-19 prevalence rates also varied widely, with states like New York and California at the high end and others, like Nebraska and Texas, on the lower end.

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