COVID-19: Costs of Closing Schools Far Outweighs Any Benefit Interview with:

Frederick Zimmerman

Dr. Zimmerman

Frederick Zimmerman, PhD
Professor, Department of Health Policy and Management
Fielding School of Public Health
UCLA What is the background for this study?

Response: The science on school transmissions of COVID is becoming clearer all the time in its conclusion that there is little to no transmission in school environments as long as reasonable precautions are taken.  Yet one recent study got a lot of attention for claiming that states that allowed their schools to remain open in the early days of the pandemic saw more cases.  That study did not control for several important factors that might explain this association, so our study aimed to correct that work. What are the main findings? Our study showed two important results. 

Response: First, people became much more cautious about the coronavirus right around the time that schools were closing.  We were able to track this change using novel data sources, including surveys of restaurants about how many diners that had day-by-day, geotagged data that showed the extent to which people stayed closer to home and stopped going to work, and even searches for hand sanitizer.  People became much more careful about COVID in all of these ways right around the time that schools were closing.  For example, meals in restaurants dropped by about 50-100% in every state before restaurants were closed and before schools were closed.  You can expect such a dramatic change to put a major dent in COVID transmissions and it did.  But previous studies hadn’t taken people’s behaviors into account, so they attributed all of the reduction in COVID cases to school closures or restaurant closures.  When we controlled for all of these variables we found that the vast majority of prevention of COVID cases could be attributable to people acting safely rather than to school closures. What should readers take away from your report?

Response: What’s important about our study is that the voluntary actions people took in the Spring to come together and change their behaviors to prevent COVID–those things really worked. What recommendations do you have for future research as a result of this work? 

Response: Our study was based on data from the Spring.  Unfortunately over the summer the whole situation changed, and  individual behaviors became politicized.  Instead of people coming together and doing what would help protect themselves and their communities, wearing masks became a left/right issue and people saw going to bars as a kind of political statement.  As we saw, this behavior led to a large increase in COVID cases in the summer, which was not surprising, even though schools were of course closed.

This may be one of those few areas of science where really no more research is needed.  There is some scientific uncertainty over whether COVID transmission in schools–including to and among teachers and other staff–is very small or non-existent, but we now know enough to be as certain as we can be that the costs of closing schools far outweighs any benefit.

No disclosures. 


Zimmerman FJ, Anderson NW. Association of the Timing of School Closings and Behavioral Changes With the Evolution of the Coronavirus Disease 2019 Pandemic in the US. JAMA Pediatr. Published online February 22, 2021. doi:10.1001/jamapediatrics.2020.6371



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Last Updated on February 22, 2021 by Marie Benz MD FAAD