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The effect of school closures and reopening strategies on COVID-19 infection dynamics in the San Francisco Bay Area: a cross-sectional survey and modeling analysis.

Abstract

Background Large-scale school closures have been implemented worldwide to curb the spread of COVID-19. However, the impact of school closures and re-opening on epidemic dynamics remains unclear. Methods We simulated COVID-19 transmission dynamics using an individual-based stochastic model, incorporating social-contact data of school-aged children during shelter-in-place orders derived from Bay Area (California) household surveys. We simulated transmission under observed conditions and counterfactual intervention scenarios between March 17-June 1, and evaluated various fall 2020 K-12 reopening strategies. Findings Between March 17-June 1, assuming children <10 were half as susceptible to infection as older children and adults, we estimated school closures averted a similar number of infections (13,842 cases; 95% CI: 6,290, 23,040) as workplace closures (15,813; 95% CI: 9,963, 22,617) and social distancing measures (7,030; 95% CI: 3,118, 11,676). School closure effects were driven by high school and middle school closures. Under assumptions of moderate community transmission, we estimate that fall 2020 school reopenings will increase symptomatic illness among high school teachers (an additional 40.7% expected to experience symptomatic infection, 95% CI: 1.9, 61.1), middle school teachers (37.2%, 95% CI: 4.6, 58.1), and elementary school teachers (4.1%, 95% CI: -1.7, 12.0). Results are highly dependent on uncertain parameters, notably the relative susceptibility and infectiousness of children, and extent of community transmission amid re-opening. The school-based interventions needed to reduce the risk to fewer than an additional 1% of teachers infected varies by grade level. A hybrid-learning approach with halved class sizes of 10 students may be needed in high schools, while maintaining small cohorts of 20 students may be needed for elementary schools. Interpretation Multiple in-school intervention strategies and community transmission reductions, beyond the extent achieved to date, will be necessary to avoid undue excess risk associated with school reopening. Policymakers must urgently enact policies that curb community transmission and implement within-school control measures to simultaneously address the tandem health crises posed by COVID-19 and adverse child health and development consequences of long-term school closures.

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