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Study: Japan’s school closures in 2020 did little to curb COVID-19

  • November 4, 2021
  • , The Asahi Shimbun , 6:38 p.m.
  • English Press

By Komiyama Ryoma, staff writer

 

Nationwide school closures in spring last year were not effective in containing the spread of the novel coronavirus, according to a study of 847 municipalities in Japan.

 

The number of new COVID-19 cases was, in fact, more likely to be higher in municipalities that closed schools than in those that did not, researchers found, although the difference was not statistically significant.

 

A team of researchers from Gakushuin University, Shizuoka University and Harvard University published the study in the online version of the U.S. science journal Nature Medicine on Oct. 27.

 

Numerous elementary, junior high and high schools across the country followed the central government’s request issued in February 2020 to temporarily shut down to help curb infections.

 

“School closures reduce children’s learning opportunities, negatively affect their physical and mental development and make it difficult for their parents to leave for work in the daytime,” said Kentaro Fukumoto, a professor of polimetrics at Gakushuin University and a member of the research team. 

 

“The central government should carefully consider whether to ask schools to close in the future.”

 

The research team collected data from 847 municipalities in Tokyo, Osaka and 25 other prefectures, or roughly half the nation’s 47 prefectures.

 

The team then compared the number of new COVID-19 cases per population between March and June 2020 in municipalities that closed schools in their jurisdictions with municipalities that did not.

 

The researchers could not find statistically significant differences between the two.

 

Municipalities that opted for school closures and those that chose not to both saw infections in their jurisdictions rise before dropping to the previous level over the month from late March 2020.

 

Infection numbers are affected by not only school closures but also various other factors, such as population density and the number of people commuting to municipalities other than where they live.

 

The researchers, therefore, chose to examine data on a range of factors.

 

The 49 items they studied included residents’ age distribution and income and the number of schoolchildren, hospitals and doctors in the municipality. They also examined municipalities’ fiscal situation, the age of mayors and the number of times mayors were elected.

 

The team, for comparison, then picked municipalities that had similarities in those items to make pairs of those that opted for school closures and those that chose not to.

 

Fukumoto said the effectiveness of school closures in curbing infections may differ now from what his team found in its studies of 2020, given that cases of the Delta variant began surging after the original data used in the study was collected.

 

The variant is thought to be highly transmissible, particularly among children.

 

Readers can view the study at: (https://www.nature.com/articles/s41591-021-01571-8).

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