BackgroundThe closure of communities, including schools, has been adopted to control the coronavirus disease 2019 MESHD
( COVID-19 MESHD
) epidemic in most countries. Operating schools safely during the pandemic requires a balance between health risks and the need for in-person learning. We use compartmental models to explore school reopening scenarios.
MethodsUsing demographic and epidemiological data between July 31 and November 23, 2020 from the city of Toronto, we developed a Susceptible-Exposed-Asymptomatic-Infectious-Recovered-Hospitalized-Isolated model. Our model with age, household, and community transmission allow us to study the impact of schools open in September 2020. The model mimics the transmission in households, the community, and schools, accounting for differences in infectiousness between adults and children and youth and adults working status. We assessed the extent to which school opening may have contributed to COVID-19 MESHD
resurgence in the fall and simulated scenarios for the safe reopening of schools up to May 31, 2021. We further considered the impact of the introduction of the new variant of concern.
FindingsThough a slight increase in infections among adults (2.8%) and children (5.4%) is anticipated by the end of the year, safe school opening is possible with stringent nonpharmaceutical interventions (NPIs) decreasing the risk of transmission in the community and the household. We found that while school reopening was not the key driver in virus resurgence, but rather it was community spread that determined the outbreak trajectory, brief school closures did reduce infections when transmission risk within the home was low. When considered possible cross-infection MESHD
amongst households, communities, and schools, we found that home transmission was crucial for mitigating the epidemic and safely operating schools. Simulating the introduction of a new strain with higher infectiousness, we observed substantial increases in infections, even when both schools and communities are closed.
InterpretationSchools can open safely under strict maintenance of strict public health measures in the community. The gradual opening of schools and communities can only be achieved by maintaining NPIs and mitigating household transmission risk to avoid the broader escape of infections acquired in schools into the community via households. If the new COVID-19 MESHD
strain is more infectious for children, public spaces, including schools, should be closed, and additional NPIs, including the use of masks, should be extended to toddlers.
FundingThis research was supported by Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR), Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, and York University Research Chair program.
Research in contextO_ST_ABSEvidence before this studyC_ST_ABSThe design of a gradual school reopening strategy remains at the heart of decision-making on reopening after shut-downs to control the epidemic. Although available studies have assessed the risk of school reopening by modelling the transmission across schools and communities, it remains unclear whether the risk is due to increased transmission in adults or children and youth.We used GoogleScholar and PubMed searches to identify previous published works. We used te following terms: "school closure", "covid 19 school closure", "reopening schools", "reopening screening school", "school household second wave model". The search of the studies ended in January 2021. Papers in other languages than English and letters were excluded from the search. Two modelling studies examined the effects of screening and delayed school reopening, two other agent-based modelling studies explored the epidemic spread across different age groups.
Added-value of this studyWe find that the resurgence of COVID-19 MESHD
in Toronto in fall 2020 mainly resulted from the increase of contact rate among adults in the community, and that the degree of in-person attendance had the most significant impact on transmission in schools. To our knowledge, our work is the first to investigate the resurgence in infections following school reopening and the impact of risk mitigation measures in schools operation during the pandemic. Our novel and comprehensive model considers the age and household structure, but also considers three different settings, school, household and community. We further examined the effects of self-screening procedures, class size, and schooling days on transmission, which enabled us to compare scenarios of school reopening separately for both adults and children and youth, and model the cross-infection MESHD
between them to avoid potential underestimation. We found that after schools opened, reducing household transmission was crucial for mitigating the epidemic since it can reduce cross-infection MESHD
amongst households, communities and schools. Lastly, given the recent report of SARS-CoV-2 variant (VOC202012/01), we investigated the impact of the new variant that may be more infectious in children and youth.
Implications of all the available evidenceOur analysis can inform policymakers of planning the safe reopening of schools during COVID-19 MESHD
. We suggest that integrating strict NPIs and school control measures are crucial for safe reopening. When schools are open, reducing transmission risk at home and community is paramount in curbing the spread of COVID-19 MESHD
. Lastly, if children are more susceptible to the new COVID-19 MESHD
VOC, both schools and community must be closed, the time children spend in essential services locations minimized, and NPIs for those aged less than three years enforced.