Physical Distancing Strategies to Reopen Schools: A Review of Three Research Articles to Frame the Discussion

The COVID-19 pandemic has prompted temporary school closures worldwide to control the spread of the disease. According to UNESCO, the closures have affected more than 90% of learners. Overtime, country-wide closures implemented in 191 countries have impacted over 1.5 billion students. Several other countries have used localized closures affecting additional millions of learners.1

Despite the continued presence of COVID-19 in many communities, education agencies are now being tasked to reopen schools using a variety of strategies to keep students and staff safe as they ensure the continuation of good learning. Furthermore, decision-makers look to previous experience to inform this path forward. But what lessons can be gleaned from past research and policy about strategies to help reopen schools during a pandemic?

Unfortunately, it is difficult to extrapolate from research and statistical modelling studies based on past virus epidemics; scientists have yet to fully understand how the transmission of COVID-19 within the population of school age children may differ from previous outbreaks. However, while education organizations may not be able to look to the past for specific solutions, it can help frame the discussion for the future. For this brief, three research articles are reviewed to contribute to the conversation of what is known and not known in controlling the spread of disease in schools.

First, in a 2020 research paper entitled School Closure and Management Practices During Corona Virus Outbreaks including COVID-192, Viner and colleagues conducted a rapid systemic review to identify literature on the effectiveness of school closures and physical distancing practices during a virus outbreak. Over 600 articles were found at the research intersection of schools, nurseries, SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome), MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome), corona virus, and COVID-19. Sixteen articles were ultimately included in the review.

Despite the breadth of inquiry, the review revealed limited information about the effectiveness of school closures in reducing the spread of the virus and no data on less disruptive school physical distancing measures. And, while pre-print studies specific to COVID-19 are now in the publishing pipeline, unfortunately, these initial studies do not disaggregate school closures or other alternative school strategies from overall community-based physical distancing measures. Although conclusions cannot be drawn from the studies to inform specific actions, the authors suggest policy makers and researchers look to other physical distancing interventions that are less disruptive than full school closures. The researchers cite full school closures as contributors to behavioral fatigue in communities where stringent measures are imposed for an extended period.

Second, a 2011 research paper entitled Controlling the Spread of Disease in Schools3 weighs in on physical distancing interventions other than school closure. Ridenour and colleagues contend that alternative school-based disease interventions have the potential to be as effective as traditional school closures and without the “corresponding loss of workforce and economic impacts.”

Physical distancing strategies to reopen schools briefs
Three research articles frame the discussion surrounding physical distancing strategies to reopen schools.

In a recent survey, results showed that 80% of districts are likely or very likely to use physical distancing strategies — 20% are still unsure.

The researchers used an individual-based computer simulation model to trace contacts within a typical school setting. A variety of student mixing interventions were tested to show total contacts occurring during a simulated school day. The goal was to better understand possible reduction in contact rates among children. The interventions included the following restrictions: hallway circulation; movement within the classroom; designated school yard areas; school yard use with classmates only; lunchroom use with classmates only; and different classroom schedules by school grouping. In addition, no intervention, all intervention, and almost all intervention scenarios were tested.

As expected, the more interventions imposed, the lower the total number of contacts as the result of lower student mixing. Excluding the use of all interventions, or almost all interventions, the results of the transmission analysis highlighted classroom restrictions as the best single intervention under lower infection probabilities. Under the classroom restriction model, children must remain seated while in their classroom. Using higher infection probabilities, the use of different schedules was found as an effective intervention.

As previously stated, drawing conclusions from this study is limited given the level of understanding regarding the exact propagation dynamics of COVID-19 both within the school setting and in the community. However, it does point to the need to take into consideration both the frequency of new contacts, the number of overall contacts, and the duration of contacts by students during the school day to limit the spread of the virus.

Physical distancing strategies to reopen schools research

64% of districts surveyed strongly agree that the challenges today are going to permanently change educational delivery, while an additional 36% agree with the same statement.

Finally, Uscher and colleagues focus on either proposed or implemented physical distancing practices during the school day to mitigate the transmission of the influenza virus. The 2018 paper entitled School Practices to Promote Social Distancing in K-12 Schools creates a typology of school practices as alternatives to prolonged school closure4. The authors conducted an extensive review of literature (2,000 abstracts culled to 16 articles) as well as 38 state-level governance guidance documents directed to local education agencies or schools in the United States.

The review revealed “limited literature on school practice to promote social distancing, as well as limited incorporation of school practices to promote social distancing into state government guidance documents.” With that said, the paper creates a comprehensive typology of distancing practices and found the most frequently identified in the literature were as follows:

  • Cancelling or postponing after-school activities (e.g., cancel performances, sports practices, or games)
  • Increasing space among students during in-person instruction (e.g., move class outdoors; re-arrange desks to increase space; divide classes into smaller groups; require that students remain seated while in class)
  • Canceling classes or activities with a high rate of mixing/contact (e.g., cancel physical education class; cancel field trips; cancel choir)
  • Partial closure (e.g., closure of one class; closure of one grade)
  • Reduced schedule (e.g., shorter school week; shorter school day; students come on alternate days)
Physical distancing strategies to reopen schools map
Source: Ridenour, etal. (2011)

Other distancing practices identified include: suspending use of common areas; segregating students within common areas; reducing the load on common areas through altered scheduling; implementing standard workplace social distancing measures for teachers and other staff; and, reducing mixing during transport.

In regard to the review of state-level government guidance documents, only 37 states and the District of Columbia had internet-posted guidance documents that met the inclusion criteria and less than half of those (42%) referred to physical distancing practices. The paper includes a table with data by state, the type of plan available, the author, year, and whether it addresses hygiene protocols, school closure, distance learning, and school practices to promote social distances.

The three research articles reviewed in this brief are available on-line and in full-text format.

References + Additional Information

United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (2020). COVID-19 educational disruption and response.

Viner, R. M., Russell, S. J., Croker, H., Packer, J., Ward, J., Stansfield, C., ... & Booy, R. (2020). School closure and management practices during coronavirus outbreaks including COVID-19: a rapid systematic review. The Lancet Child & Adolescent Health.

Ridenhour, B. J., Braun, A., Teyrasse, T., & Goldsman, D. (2011). Controlling the spread of disease in schools. PloS one, 6(12).

Uscher-Pines, L., Schwartz, H. L., Ahmed, F., Zheteyeva, Y., Meza, E., Baker, G., & Uzicanin, A. (2018). School practices to promote social distancing in K-12 schools: review of influenza pandemic policies and practices. BMC public health, 18(1), 406

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