Effectiveness of Isolation Policies in Schools: Evidence from a Mathematical Model of Influenza and COVID-19


Background Non-pharmaceutical interventions such as social distancing, school closures and travel restrictions are often implemented to control outbreaks of infectious diseases. For influenza in schools, the Center of Disease Control (CDC) recommends that febrile students remain isolated at home until they have been fever-free for at least one day and a related policy is recommended for SARS-CoV-2 (COVID-19). Other authors proposed using a school week of four or fewer days of in-person instruction for all students to reduce transmission. However, there is limited evidence supporting the effectiveness of these interventions.

Methods We introduced a mathematical model of school outbreaks that considers both intervention methods. Our model accounts for the school structure and schedule, as well as the time-progression of fever symptoms and viral shedding. The model was validated on outbreaks of seasonal and pandemic influenza and COVID-19 in schools. It was then used to estimate the outbreak curves and the proportion of the population infected (attack rate) under the proposed interventions.

Results For influenza, the CDC-recommended one day of post-fever isolation can reduce the attack rate by a median (interquartile range) of 29 (13–59)%. With 2 days of post-fever isolation the attack rate could be reduced by 70 (55–85)%. Alternatively, shortening the school week to 4 and 3 days reduces the attack rate by 73 (64–88)% and 93 (91–97)%, respectively. For COVID-19, application of post-fever isolation policy was found to be less effective and reduced the attack rate by 10 (5–17)% for a 2-day isolation policy and by 14 (5–26)% for 14 days. A 4-day school week would reduce the median attack rate in a COVID-19 outbreak by 57 (52–64)%, while a 3-day school week would reduce it by 81 (79–83)%. In both infections, shortening the school week significantly reduced the duration of outbreaks.

Conclusions Shortening the school week could be an important tool for controlling influenza and COVID-19 in schools and similar settings. Additionally, the CDC-recommended post-fever isolation policy for influenza could be enhanced by requiring two days of isolation instead of one.

Adam A.C. Burns
Adam A.C. Burns
Computer Scientist

I am a researcher at Hennepin Healthcare Research Institute. My research interests include applied mathematics, mechanistic, and machine learning modeling approaches to address problems in biology and medicine.