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Trust Index: Does closing a school help slow a COVID-19 outbreak?

News4Jax also examines DeSantis’s claim that school closures cause physical and mental harm to students

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – With two Duval County high school campuses shut down because of COVID-19 outbreaks, Gov. Ron Desantis criticized the idea in a Jacksonville press conference on Tuesday.

“School closures should be off the table," DeSantis said while speaking at Jacksonville Classical Academy. "They don’t do anything to mitigate covid, but they do cause catastrophic damage to the physical, mental, and wellbeing of our youth.”

We decided to put DeSantis’s comments through the News4Jax Trust Index, starting with the statement that closures “don’t do anything to mitigate” the spread of the virus.

Gov. DeSantis has repeatedly panned the idea of closing schools as a measure to stem COVID-19 outbreaks.

“Pretty much everyone acknowledges that having schools open is the right thing to do,” he said.

He’s said a “surgical approach” should be employed, rather than a temporary school-wide closure that quarantines healthy students who may have been exposed.

This week, both Fletcher High School and Douglas Anderson School of the Arts moved all students to virtual learning because of the Duval school district’s 20% threshold. That plan says that if one-in-five people on campus were exposed to a reported positive coronavirus case, then the campus should close.

Putting aside the pros and cons of virtual learning versus in-person instruction — does temporarily closing a school help to slow an outbreak?

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the nation’s health protection agency, “in most instances, a single case of COVID-19 in a school would not warrant closing the entire school. Community spread and how much contact the person with COVID-19 had with others, as well as when such contact took place, need to be considered.”

“If the spread of sars-cov-2 within a school is higher than in the community, or if the school is the source of an outbreak, administrators should work with local health officials to determine if temporarily closing the school building is necessary,” according to the CDC.

The CDC confirms that closing a school is a viable strategy under certain circumstances and school administrators at Douglas Anderson and Fletcher High School determined those circumstances applied.

However, the district blamed those outbreaks on off-campus activities, which, if true, would suggest that those safety protocols on-campus created a safer environment than distance learning.

For the governor’s claim that a school closure doesn’t help slow the spread of COVID-19, the trust index says “Be Careful” because there’s no real evidence to back up that claim and closing a school is a strategy recommended by the CDC in some cases.

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Do school closures cause physical and mental harm to students?

On Tuesday, DeSantis also said that distance learning, even for a short time, can cause physical, mental, social damage to kids. It’s not the first time he has made this claim.

News4Jax spoke to some pediatricians about what he said.

“I think what we’ve tried to say if closing the school is not the best option," DeSantis said.

He described the effect as “catastrophic.”

And the CDC does cite serious problems.

On its website, the CDC says "extended closures can be harmful to children’s mental health and can increase the likelihood that children engage in unhealthy behaviors.”

The agency has similar warnings about lacking physical activity and social contact with peers

But all of those are about extended school closures not temporary ones.

Dr. Lisa Gwynn leads the Florida chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

News4Jax asked about 10 to 14-day school closures for a Covid-19 outbreak, like the ones being utilized in Jacksonville.

“I don’t see that having any long term effects for a child,” Gwynn said. “I don’t feel that in the long term, two weeks is going to really make that big of a difference for the child’s well being.”

The FCAAP updated its pandemic recommendations for schools on Tuesday to say, “While it is clearly in a child’s best interest that he/she attend classes on-campus, the benefits must outweigh the medical risks to the children, teachers, school staff, and families.”

Gwynn said students might lose a couple of days of learning during a closure, but if an outbreak hits a school, she says, it’s the lesser of two evils.

“I think that if the districts can remain in alignment with the CDC recommendations, of closures of classrooms, and schools, I think that’s the best approach,” Gwynn said.

So, do school closures cause physical and mental harm to students?

The News4JaxTrust Index says, “Be Careful.”

While the CDC and pediatricians academy recognizes those effects from long-term distance learning, the governor’s comments were referencing a two-week closure, which experts say, would be far from “catastrophic.”

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