School Closures Had No Effect On COVID-19 Spread In Japan

By comparing similar Japanese municipalities with closed or open schools, researchers found that campus restrictions did not reduce COVID-19 transmission.

AsianScientist (Nov. 10, 2021) – While lockdowns shuttered schools across the globe to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, a Japan-US team has found that school closures did not significantly reduce COVID-19 cases in Japan in the first half of 2020. The results were published in Nature Medicine.

When the pandemic struck, nations quickly imposed mobility restrictions, including getting students off campus to stave off viral transmission. Even as the world has started opening back up, many schools remain closed to help control COVID-19’s spread, despite potential consequences like learning loss, mental health deterioration and widening socio-economic inequalities.

Researchers, however, have encountered mixed results on the benefits of these restrictions, possibly because of limitations in data or methods. For example, studies often estimate values based on publicly available data, comparing case counts between days of closed and open campuses.

Other factors that could influence the results tend to be overlooked, like broader lockdown policies or sudden class suspensions precisely due to a spike in cases. To evaluate the effects of school closures more accurately, researchers led by Professor Kentaro Fukumoto from Gakushuin University zoomed into around 800 of Japan’s municipalities and added control parameters into their calculations, including “dummy” prefectures to account for possible confounding factors.

Based on data from March to June 2020, the researchers matched up municipalities that encountered similar situations, such as rising case tallies, and compared whether closed or open campuses impacted the health outcomes. Strikingly, the results revealed that school closures alone did not lead to any significant reduction in COVID-19 transmission.

If the restrictions were effective, infection levels should have dropped in areas with closed schools or an outbreak might have unfolded in municipalities that left campuses open. Instead, the data showed very little difference in case counts—indicating the effects were as good as zero.

To further validate the findings, robustness checks were performed using the dummy variables to crunch the numbers on varying data collection procedures as well as spillover effects among nearby municipalities. Even with these alternative scenarios, the null results did not change, though the researchers also acknowledged differences in Japan’s COVID-19 response compared to other nations.

“These results suggest that policymakers should be cautious when considering similar [school closure] policies in the future, especially given the substantial costs such policies can have for the well-being of both children and parents,” the authors concluded. “Our recommendation is that governments should monitor infection rates and school closures at a granular level in real time.”

The article can be found at: Fukumoto et al. (2021) No causal effect of school closures in Japan on the spread of COVID-19 in spring 2020.


Source: Shizuoka University; Photo: Hiroyoshi Urushima/Unsplash.
Disclaimer: This article does not necessarily reflect the views of AsianScientist or its staff.

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