As part of a national effort to mitigate the worst effects of the coronavirus, at least 56,000 schools have closed, are scheduled to close, or have closed briefly and then reopened, affecting at least 29.5 million public-school students in the United States. Even more school districts will no doubt close in the near future.
But outright suspension of the school year or business as usual is not necessarily the only option. Districts can allow parents the flexibility to choose what’s best for their family while redoubling their mitigation efforts in schools.
There are two kinds of school closures: reactive and proactive. In the former, a school closes upon discovery of a case of the coronavirus among the students, staff, or parents. This is relatively uncontroversial, and most people feel it is sensible to close the school for a period of time, to limit the outbreak. Mathematical models and empirical analyses of reactive closures in past pandemics show that closing schools reduces the total number of cases in the community by about 25 percent and postpones the peak of the pandemic by a week or two, which is helpful.
In the proactive case, a school closes before the disease even reaches its doors. Strictly from the point of view of reducing the number of deaths, proactive school closure makes sense: Rigorous analyses show that proactive closure is one of the most beneficial interventions that can be employed to reduce the impact of epidemic disease. One of the main ways proactive closure works is by radically decreasing social interactions in a community. It has this effect even if, as in the case of the coronavirus, children are relatively spared by the pathogen, in part precisely because it forces parents to stay home.