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School closures and coronavirus spread

by on 2020/04/16

This post was written by Emily McDougal and Sinead Rhodes.

The decision to close schools throughout the UK was a controversial issue with some arguing that it came too late, and others that it would put too much pressure on parents. By 18th March 2020, 107 countries had implemented such closures in response to the global pandemic.

A recent study considered the potential impact that closing schools has had upon the spread of Covid-19. Unsurprisingly it gained media attention, with coverage of the paper across many of the largest media channels. Here we explain the study and then look at reporting of the research by BBC News, The Guardian and Sky news to highlight the importance of transparent and clear reporting of research.

What did the study do?

Researchers at University College London (UCL) wanted to know whether closing schools is likely to reduce the transmission of Covid-19. They did this by conducting a systematic review, which means looking back at relevant research conducted in the past and gathering, analysing and summarising the findings. This allows them to make some assumptions about how effective the current school measures might be, compared to how effective similar measures have been in the past.

They searched for research that had investigated the impact of school closures on the spread of any coronavirus outbreak across the world. They found 16 studies in total. Nine of these studies focused on the 2003 Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) outbreak and were all published research papers. Six studies not yet published focused on the Covid-19 pandemic, and one on other endemic coronaviruses. These studies are recently conducted and so have not yet been reviewed by other academics or published.  Peer review is an important way academics assess the quality of work but with the recent nature of the work it is to be expected that they are still in the publication cycle.

It is difficult to summarise the findings of all 16 studies, as they varied in the way they were conducted, as did the findings. In research into the SARS outbreak, some studies found closing schools played no role in infection control, while others found it led to reduced transmission of the virus. Similarly, studies of Covid-19 were mixed, although estimates suggest closing schools alone (i.e. not including any other social distancing or transmission control measures) would prevent only 2-4% of deaths.

The authors end the paper by stating that it is difficult to draw conclusions due to limited data, and that we should instead consider evidence based on influenza outbreaks, a body of research that the paper did not review. Here they argue that school closures have the greatest effect on influenza outbreaks when the virus is less infectious. From this they conclude that school closures may not be effective in preventing the Covid-19 outbreak as it is more infectious. It is important to note that as these are different viruses more specific research is necessary to investigate this speculation.

Media Coverage

Coverage of this study differed between news outlets in their headlines – “School closures likely to have little impact on spread of coronavirus, review finds” from The Guardian and similar “Coronavirus: School closures ‘have little effect’ on slowing spread of Covid-19” from Sky news, compared to a softer “Coronavirus: Scientists question school closures impact” from BBC News. The latter headline is much more neutral and reflects the study’s findings, while the other outlets have chosen more sensational headlines. A reminder to refer to our #1 top tip when interpreting news articles – don’t stop at the headline!

BBC News did well in breaking down the study systematically, including bullet pointing the key findings. They also question how reliable the findings are, and informatively provided quotes from other scientists who have given their opinion (see our Top Tip #3). The Guardian and Sky coverage was less detailed, but focuses more on the potential social and economic impacts of school closure which puts the research into perspective. They also include quotes from the lead author who put the research into their own words (Top Tip #2). The way in which the BBC News report the study provides the facts but leaves the reader to make their own mind up. Although it is important to use research to guide our understanding around policy decisions and their subsequent impact, it is also vital to give people the resources to draw their own conclusions.

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