The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Is it really a good idea to close schools to fight coronavirus?

The Northshore School District in a Seattle suburb closed over coronavirus concerns. (Ken Lambert/Seattle Times/AP)

Students in the Lake Washington School District in the Seattle suburbs were so nervous about the novel coronavirus they started a petition urging officials to close the schools. No one in a classroom had been diagnosed with the disease, but more than 15 people in the region had died of it, and students thought: Why take a chance?

District officials did move to minimize risk, according to the system’s website, by postponing or canceling fields trips and after-school and weekend events — but they decided not to close schools even though tens of thousands of people signed the petition.

Why not?

They were following the advice of public health officials in the region not to close schools unless someone on campus is diagnosed because, they said, there are negative consequences to closing school preemptively.

While the advice could change as more is learned about the virus, the public health department for Seattle and King County said its guidance was based on several factors. For one thing, it’s unclear how the virus affects children, who do not seem to bear the brunt of illness. Furthermore, the public health agency said, children will congregate outside school if they aren’t in class. Many parents can’t stay home with their children.

“If I had a perfect crystal ball that closing schools is the right thing to do, I would say so,” Michael T. Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, said in an interview.

“I have one foot deeper into ‘don’t close schools’ right now than ‘close them’” because there is no evidence closing schools will stop the spread of coronavirus or even suppress transmission of it, he said. “And I can’t even say closing down schools to clean them will make a difference. The data isn’t there.”

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There’s debate in school systems throughout the nation about whether to call off classes before someone associated with a school has been diagnosed even as the virus, which causes the illness covid-19, spreads. Worldwide, the virus has infected more than 100,000 people and killed more than 3,000; diagnosed cases in the United States top 500, and at least 22 people have died.

Nearly 300 million students have been affected by K-12 school closures in at least 13 countries, including some in the United States. Several U.S. colleges and universities — including the University of Washington, Stanford University in California and Rice University in Texas — have canceled classes, moving to online education. Students are allowed to stay in dormitories — where they live in close quarters — in part to avoid the dangers of travel.

In the Seattle region, the Northshore School District opted to close, and some other school systems in the nation are closing, sometimes for a day or two so workers can clean.

The Lake Washington petition, signed by more than 30,000 people, was started by eighth-grader Michael Finlayson who wrote that he and other students “do not want to put ourselves and our parents in the position of choosing between our education and our health.” They fear getting the virus and passing it on to their families. He is especially worried because his mother has cerebral palsy, KING-TV reported.

“We do not write this petition to get out of our school work,” the petition says. “We expect our teacher to provide us with assignments at home, and we resolve to work hard to complete those assignments while school is closed.”

But deciding when to close is not clear-cut, officials say. Seattle officials said they remember when some schools closed in 2009 during the spread of a different virus, H1N1 swine flu, and some serious negative consequences followed.

“We closed schools during H1N1, and we saw tremendous community disruption,” Jeff Duchin, a Seattle and King County public health official, said at a recent briefing.

“Parents had to stay home from work who needed to be at work,” Duchin said. “It affected our health-care workforce as well. Many nurses were pulled out to care for their children. We found that the children gathered elsewhere when we weren’t allowing them to go to school. They went to the mall.

“So there are questions about the effectiveness in the practical sense,” Duchin said, “and there are also serious considerations around the negative impacts of school closures on parents and the communities in general.”

He and Patty Hayes, public health director of Seattle and King County, also said closing schools could increase the risk that children who are infected but don’t have symptoms may infect older family members.

Harvard University epidemiologist Marc Lipsitch told Post colleagues it remains unclear how children are affected by the virus. When it comes to school closings, he said, “We don’t know if that’s an important control measure or if it’s just a very expensive, costly and disruptive control measure.”

How bad will the coronavirus outbreak get in the U.S.?

Osterholm said an estimated one-third or more of women in the United States who are nurses are also primary-care providers for children under 18 years old. “If we take these nurses out of work, we are not just talking about closing schools but also about the impact we are having on health care, which can be dramatic,” he said.

“It is too knee-jerk a reaction to say just close schools out of an abundance of caution when there are potentially serious downsides to this,” he said.

Some students in other countries have been out of school for weeks, and problems are emerging. For example, Quartz reported students at Hong Kong Academy, who have been learning online for five weeks, are finding it stressful to be online so much. The school staged a virtual sports day to give them a break.

A 2008 report, “Legal Preparedness for School Closures in Response to Pandemic Influenza and Other Emergencies,” submitted to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and written by experts at Johns Hopkins and Georgetown universities, found that “school closure was an essential part of community strategies to limit the impact of deadly influenza during the 1918 [flu] pandemic.”

But, it said, a “CDC study following the closure of schools in Yancey County, North Carolina in October 2006 due to an outbreak of influenza B found that students continued to congregate in public areas during the closure. Initial attempts to increase social distancing were compromised by failure to inform parents of subsequent risks.”

It also said “long-term closures could create significant difficulties for schools to meet” legal mandates for how many days children must be in school.


This is the March 5 bulletin put out by King County, Wash., public health officials:

Public Health is not currently recommending that schools proactively close unless they have a confirmed case of COVID-19 in a staff member or student.
This guidance may have been confusing for some families and schools because schools bring together large groups of children. School closures have significant negative impacts on our community. We will be providing additional information to schools about how to stay open safely. The considerations we have taken in our decision not to currently recommend routine closure at schools include:
* Children are not known to get seriously ill from COVID-19
* Closing schools may not be effective because some children may congregate anyway, at other locations
* Many parents, such as healthcare workers, need to be at work. If these critical workers stay home with children it causes significant impacts on the healthcare system and other institutions that are essential for our community to function
* If schools close, some children might have to stay home with alternative caregivers, such as elders, who are more vulnerable
* We don’t know how effective children are in spreading this disease
Some children and staff may be at higher risk for severe illness because of underlying health conditions or a weakened immune system. Public Health advises that those people consult with their healthcare provider to decide the best course of action.
Public Health also respects each individual school’s decisions about closures, postponement of activities, or other social distancing measures -- as each school knows the needs of their community best.
Public Health is continually assessing our decision not to require the widespread closure of schools. We are continually evaluating information as it becomes available to better inform our decisions about proactive schools closure.

Coronavirus: What you need to know

Vaccines: The CDC recommends that everyone age 5 and older get an updated covid booster shot. New federal data shows adults who received the updated shots cut their risk of being hospitalized with covid-19 by 50 percent. Here’s guidance on when you should get the omicron booster and how vaccine efficacy could be affected by your prior infections.

New covid variant: The XBB.1.5 variant is a highly transmissible descendant of omicron that is now estimated to cause about half of new infections in the country. We answered some frequently asked questions about the bivalent booster shots.

Guidance: CDC guidelines have been confusing — if you get covid, here’s how to tell when you’re no longer contagious. We’ve also created a guide to help you decide when to keep wearing face coverings.

Where do things stand? See the latest coronavirus numbers in the U.S. and across the world. In the U.S., pandemic trends have shifted and now White people are more likely to die from covid than Black people. Nearly nine out of 10 covid deaths are people over the age 65.

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