Timing of school closures, COVID-19 transmission, and academic Twitter

April 17, 2020

As the COVID-19 crisis continues, scholars at the PSTC and beyond are looking for ways to use their areas of expertise to contribute to the conversation. PSTC faculty associate and Associate Professor of Sociology Emily Rauscher is no exception. 

Rauscher, who studies inequalities in education and health, has found a correlation between the timing of state school closures and the number of COVID-19 cases in each state. States that closed schools before or shortly after their first 100 cases have fewer cases now. She posted these early findings on Twitter.

On whether her findings indicate that school closure is responsible for mitigating the virus’s spread, Rauscher said: “The analyses are purely descriptive. People want to interpret them as causal - that closing schools cause fewer cases and deaths - but there are a lot of reasons that may not be the case. For example, states often closed non-essential business around the same time that they ordered schools closed.” 

Although Rauscher’s data does not confirm causation, she plans to investigate the possibility. “I hope to use more sophisticated methods and take advantage of some state differences to address those concerns. That would get closer to testing whether closing schools slows the spread of COVID-19,” she explained. 

Rauscher, like many other scholars and healthcare workers, is taking advantage of social media platforms to quickly disseminate new research and receive feedback during the pandemic. She noted, “Twitter has been helpful in providing rapid, initial responses to this work. Peer review takes a long time. For example, one of my papers has now been under review for 5 months - and that's only the first review.”

Rauscher noted that the rapid feedback she has received through social media has exposed her to academic work by psychologists and public health researchers that is new to her. She also commented that the issue seems more political than she thought. 

“The main reaction I've had is that the debate about whether to close schools raises some difficult ethical questions that have not been well addressed. For example, closing schools will drastically increase inequality due to highly unequal home environments that have only been amplified by the rapid economic changes. At the same time, COVID-19 has unequal effects by age. At some point difficult decisions will need to be made and it's unclear to me where the balance should be in terms of valuing quality of future life for young people (in terms of education and social skills) versus the quality of life years lost,” she explained. 

However, she also acknowledged the limitations of social media for feedback, adding, “The problem is those on social media are a select group and may not be the best people to review a particular study. From my perspective, social media allows rapid feedback from a general academic audience. To receive more thoughtful, detailed feedback from experts in that area requires full peer review.”