Researchers at McMaster University discovered that schools and daycares were not found to be significant places of high transmission rates for COVID-19, a finding standing in stark contrast with decisions by governments to close schools.

“Although the data consistently show that children can both contract and transmit COVID-19, based on published reports to date, following reopening, the risk of widespread transmission from child to child and child to adult is low, particularly when IPAC (Infection Prevention and Control) measures are in place and adhered to,” read the review.

“This trend appears to be consistent in the data collected with early variants of concern. Even when absolute case numbers were high, most infections originated from outside of school.”

The review compared international transmission rates in childcare settings and schools, citing numerous databases and studies, with over 34,000 references. 

The findings were published in the Lancet Child and Adolescent Health on Thursday. The results question the validity of repeatedly sending students home to learn remotely during the pandemic. 

Children were removed from schools several times over three consecutive school years, in Ontario for a minimum of 135 missed days.

“We found that after that initial shutdown where everything was locked down, schools did not appear to have much impact on community level transmission when infection prevention control measures were in place,” lead author of the review and assistant professor at McMaster Sarah Neil-Sztramko told CP24.

The review was conducted over two years and had to be “extensively” updated to include the latest data. 

“The role of schools and daycares in COVID-19 transmission, from a growing number of studies, were reported in several reviews; the overall findings were mixed, and these reviews became quickly outdated as new and often higher-quality evidence emerged,” wrote authors of the review.

“The purpose of this living rapid review was to continually identify, appraise, and summarise emerging research evidence about the risk of transmission of COVID-19 among children and adults in schools and daycares, the effect of infection prevention and control (IPAC) measures on COVID-19 transmission within schools and daycares, and the effect of opening schools and daycares on community-level transmission.”

The review concluded that protocols such as masking, vaccination and test-to-stay practices were more effective methods for reducing transmission of the virus in schools and daycares. 

However, measures like mandatory quarantining, cohorting and hybrid learning could not be proven to definitively have any effectiveness, making “little to no difference in transmission.” 

“It is important to understand which measures mitigate transmission so that schools can remain open as much as possible, given the negative impacts that were found during COVID-19 when they were closed,” said Neil-Sztramko.

Other studies have shown increased educational disparities with remote learning, particularly among low-income families and those living in areas with limited access to the internet and other resources. 

“School closures also reduced opportunities for students to interact with their peers, which has been shown to have an adverse effect on their social and emotional development,” reads the review.

“Additionally, the fear, stress, and isolation caused by the pandemic contributed to a substantial increase in loneliness, anxiety, depression, and other mental health problems.”

The McMaster authors believe that their research will provide a “strong and factual foundation” for how best to handle future viral outbreaks of consequence.

“If there were to be another wave where community transmission was increasing and straining the health-care system, strategies such as masking, vaccination, and test-to-stay interventions are effective in fighting transmission, allowing schools to stay open,” said Neil-Sztramko.