School closures are not likely to have a significant effect on the spread of infections during outbreaks such as coronavirus, a study suggests.
Researchers found that school closures alone were predicted to reduce deaths by around 2% to 4% amid the coronavirus outbreak in the UK, which is less than other social distancing measures.
The study, led by University College London (UCL), found that closures have only minimal effects on highly contagious infections where children are not the main drivers, such as COVID-19.
UK schools closed their doors to most students more than two weeks ago as the country was put under lockdown, following in the footsteps of other European countries including Spain and Italy.
Other countries around the world have also implemented mass school closures amid the coronavirus pandemic, which has infected more than 1.3 million people.
Researchers analysed 16 studies, which included articles on severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) as well as a report on COVID-19 in the UK.
School closures did not appear to have contributed to the control of the SARS epidemic in China, Hong Kong and Singapore in 2003, according to a study in the Lancet Child & Adolescent Health journal.
It found that other control measures such as isolation are more effective during a coronavirus outbreak.
The paper said: “Modelling studies from the COVID-19 pandemic support the use of national school closure as part of a package of social distancing measures.
“Yet the only study to examine school closures as a separate intervention warned that the impact was relatively marginal, given the reasonable assumptions that household and community contacts would rise as a consequence.”
The study also highlighted “economic costs and potential harms” of mass school closures, especially for the most disadvantaged children.
Researchers suggested some less disruptive social distancing interventions in schools such as closing playgrounds and increasing spacing between students in class rather than full closures.
Russell Viner, professor of adolescent health at the UCL Institute of Child Health, said: “We know from previous studies that school closures are likely to have the greatest effect if the virus has low transmissibility and attack rates are higher in children. This is the opposite of COVID-19.”
He added: “With nearly 90% of the world’s students (more than 1.5 billion young people) out of school, more data and robust modelling studies are urgently needed to help us identify how countries can, in time, safely return students to education.”
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Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: “These findings demonstrate that the Government must keep the decision to close schools under review.
“It is certainly the case that a prolonged shutdown will damage the education of children and it is likely that those from disadvantaged backgrounds will suffer the most.”