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As virus shuts schools, experts debate if that curbs spread

As families across the United States scramble to care for children sent home from schools closed due to the coronavirus, experts disagree on whether such closures protect kids — or even the community.

The question of whether to close schools in not a no-brainer, said Marc Lipsitch, an epidemiologist at Harvard's public health school. On one hand, children clearly can be infected and can transmit the new virus, he said; schools are poorly ventilated and “not very sanitary.”

But he said the case is much clearer for other social distancing measures like canceling large public events, and the downsides of school closures include the hypothetical risk of children infecting their grandparents or other older caretakers who step in when school is closed.

“I don’t envy the public officials making these decisions,” Lipsitch said.

In Scarsdale, an affluent New York City suburb, schools are closed until March 18 because a middle-school faculty member tested positive for the virus.

While fixing a late-morning breakfast of pancakes for her two school-aged sons, Christine Weston said Wednesday she agreed with the decision, even if her kids had no known exposure. She lives 20 minutes from New Rochelle, hit by more than 100 cases and now a containment zone where schools and gathering places are shuttered.

“I think it’s a necessary precaution,” said Weston. A stay-at-home mom, Weston said she's giving her kids self-directed homework during the forced break.

For most people, the new coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia.

Most people recover from the new virus. According to the World Health Organization, people with mild illness recover in about two weeks, while those with more severe illness may take three to six weeks to recover. In mainland China, where the virus first exploded, more than 80,000 people have been diagnosed and more than 58,000 have so far recovered.

In the United States, there have been over 1,200 cases and at least 37 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University's global coronavirus count.

Recent data from China suggests children are at similar risk of infection as the general population, though less likely to have severe symptoms. Caitlin Rivers, epidemiologist and assistant professor at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security in Baltimore, said: “It has provided more evidence for me that school closures may be effective.”

Evidence from China also suggests that even if mildly affected, children can spread the virus to others.

Dr. Nicholas Christakis, a Yale University physician and sociologist, said Wednesday that closing a school makes sense if just one case is identified there, as a way to help keep the virus from spreading within schools and the community. Even if there are no cases in schools, closing them can be an effective social distancing strategy, he said.

“It would also be wise to not treat school closure as all or nothing. We could still derive some benefits if we did intermediate things, like cancel large sporting or musical events, or allow those parents who wish to keep their kids at home. Anything that decreases social mixing and group sizes is helpful.”

Jennifer Nuzzo, also of the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, said to be effective, schools would have to close early before there is substantial spread of the virus in the community and they would have to stay closed for weeks to months.

Nuzzo said Singapore has been fairly successful in reducing its case numbers, and officials there have elected not to close schools.

“I do worry calls to close schools come from parents who can easily absorb the impact,” Nuzzo said. She strongly cautions schools to think about the harms to children’s education, their nutritional needs, their social needs and the impact on workplace absenteeism, particularly among health care workers.

In Oregon, near Portland, the Hillsboro School District told families this week that schools would stay open even though a middle-school student tested positive for coronavirus and had been at school with mild symptoms before self-isolating at home.

“The unfortunate reality is that COVID-19 is in our community,” Superintendent Mike Scott told families. He said local public health officials’ guidance suggested that closing schools “may not be an effective method for stopping the spread of the virus.”

“The best prevention is still practicing good health hygiene habits — washing your hands frequently, covering your cough or sneeze, getting plenty of rest and eating a healthy diet — and avoiding contact with people who are symptomatic," Scott said.

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AP Medical Writer Carla K. Johnson contributed to this report.

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The Associated Press Health and Science Department receives support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute's Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.