What Scientists Think About School Closures

Earlier this week Sir Patrick Vallence told the Health Select Committee that schools had not been closed because of the side effects. The scientific advice it has been receiving has just been published, along with its supporting evidence, which goes further to explain the Government’s hesitation.

Three weeks ago the SAGE sub group, Scientific Pandemic Influenza group on Behaviour (SPI-B) released advice pointing to the experience of Japan, as well as predictions of “unexpected displacement of activity“. The Scientists concluded:

“SPI-B have a consensus view that school closures will be highly disruptive and likely to present an unequal burden to different sections of society. Our understanding of reports from Japan is that there is growing discontent around the policy. Isolation of entire households also poses a substantial, and unequal, burden on those affected.”

The scientists also advised:

  • school closure, loss of usual outlets for social interactions, and the absence of grandparents and entire families as a result of isolation might counteractively lead to more house parties, congregation of children in parks, and queues at takeaways.
  • school closure combined with isolation of those aged 65+ will reduce the ability of grandparents to engage in childcare, reducing the ability for parents to work. This was seen as problematic for lower income families and single parents, as well as the NHS.
  • school closure and isolation of symptomatic cases, will make it hard for people to adhere to isolation.
  • for single parents, adherence may become impossible. For poorer families, loss of income and increased household bills (heating, electricity, food delivery etc), will hit at the same time as loss of social services provided through schools (free school meals, after school clubs etc).
  • for families more able to cope financially, isolation will still be more difficult as children spend longer in the home.
  • almost all strategies will result in reduced, or changed, adult oversight of children. This presents a risk of unintended consequences.

The advice concluded by saying:

“The importance of schools during a crisis should not be overlooked. This includes:

  • Acting as a source of emotional support for children

  • Providing education (e.g. on hand hygiene) which is conveyed back to families

  • Provision of social service (e.g. free school meals, monitoring wellbeing)

  • Acting as a point of leadership and communication within communities.”

The closing schools debate isn’t just live in Japan and the UK. Virologists in Belgium are arguing about the wisdom of closing schools, French speaking schools have closed and Flemish speaking ones are open. Government will be hoping its scientists more dire warnings do not come true…

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