COVID-19 is overwhelmingly a disease of adults, and the older the adult is the harder the disease hits. Then why are school closures effective at reducing cases and deaths? The answer is that a school is a hub for community interactions and potential transmissions among parents and other adults. School closings are effective because they reduce contact between and mobility of the adult population. Parents aren’t interacting with teachers, other school staff, or one another as much. Extracurricular activity halts or is moved online. Parents stay home more to care for children thereby reducing their exposure to the disease in their workplaces. As we’ve noted in the past nine months, when schools close, life slows down and so does the transmission of the virus.
In short, school closures are not about protecting children per se as much as protecting the adult population on which those children depend. School closures are an act of social and intergenerational solidarity, with children postponing the benefits of education and peer relationships while adults sacrifice the freedom to carry on with their normal personal, business, and professional lives.
The payoffs of these policies are manifest: less disease and death and, therefore, more parents and grandparents around to teach and nurture children in the future. As other studies of the 1918 pandemic have suggested, policies that preserve human life, knowledge, skill, and wisdom provide the basis for restoring socioeconomic functioning after the pandemic. The communities that imposed and sustained harsh social distancing measures and economic shutdowns had the earliest and strongest economic recoveries once the influenza passed.