Across Europe, the start of the new school year was meant to signal a return to normality.
Countries such as Italy kept pupils at home from March to the summer holidays, while others such as Denmark allowed schools to reopen for the remainder of the term after the worst of the pandemic’s first wave had passed.
All tried to reassure parents and children that in-person teaching would restart in the fall.
Yet the planned reopening of schools could not come at a worse time: Many European countries, from Spain to Poland, are experiencing an uptick in coronavirus cases. Already the spike has forced some schools to close their doors again, including in the northern German state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern where four schools had to partly shut after reopening last week due to coronavirus cases.
It doesn’t help that it remains uncertain what role schools play in the transmission of the virus. Far fewer cases have been detected in children than adults, but scientists still aren’t sure how likely children are to pass the virus on to others.
“The major fear is of another lockdown and that we have to go back to homeschooling,” — Cristina Tagliabue, an Italian mother
The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) said this month that evidence suggests “that re-opening schools has not been associated with significant increases in community transmission,” but it acknowledged that there was “conflicting published evidence” on the impact of school closures and reopenings.
Yet parents and pupils have more to worry about than potential health risks: early surveys have found that the school closures have had negative effects on the education and wellbeing of many children and teenagers, while parents have struggled to cope with combining remote work and homeschooling.
“The major fear is of another lockdown and that we have to go back to homeschooling,” said Cristina Tagliabue, an Italian mother who co-founded a protest movement that saw families and teaching staff take to the streets in 60 Italian cities this summer.
It’s for that reason that countries are pushing ahead with school reopenings despite a potential second wave looming in the fall. Here’s how six EU countries are hoping to keep schools open and the virus under control.
There is no national back-to-school date in Spain, with the first schools reopening on September 7 in some regions. The government’s recommendations include social distancing and using facilities such as libraries and canteens as classrooms to allow for more space.
Teachers complain that the guidance allows for contradicting rules within the country — Spain’s 17 regions can set their own education policies — which could lead to confusion. “There cannot be 17 returns to the classroom in Spain,” said Sonia García, a spokeswoman for the teaching union ANPE, pointing to a lack of “clear instructions” from the central government.
The Catalan regional government is hiring 5,000 extra teachers to create stable “bubbles” of pupils in order to limit the overall contacts within schools and allow children to eschew face masks and social distancing. Meanwhile, the region of Madrid intends to hire 600 teaching staff and has proposed four different action plans depending on the severity of the pandemic (including partial attendance and distance learning). In the north-east region of La Rioja, regional authorities are proposing that pupils older than 14 could choose online education or attend school in the afternoon rather than the morning.
French schools are set to reopen on September 1, except in areas declared as “active virus circulation” zones like Paris or the Marseille region, where schools could remain closed.
The education ministry has said that pupils do not need to social distance in areas where keeping a distance is impossible, either indoors or outdoors. However, those older than 11 will have to wear masks both indoors and outdoors if a minimum distance of 1 meter cannot be guaranteed, as do teachers. Schools will have to provide masks for their staff — but the education ministry said it only has three months’ worth of masks stockpiled. Pupils and students are expected to buy their own.
Teachers’ unions are accusing the government of “aggravating chaos” and creating “degrading” conditions of work and say plans for distance learning are incomplete if they are needed to help cope with a second wave.
Italian schools are set to reopen on September 14 after staying closed for six months. Staff will have to wear masks, and the government will decide in the last week of August whether children older than six will also need to do so.
Classes will be smaller to allow for social distancing among the country’s 8 million pupils — which means that space for new classrooms is needed. But according to the association of school headmasters, Italy is still missing 20,000 additional classrooms for a total of 400,000 students.
Local authorities have been tasked with finding these spaces, with some resorting to creative solutions such as using bed and breakfast establishments as classrooms. Tagliabue, the mother-turned-activist, is confident that schools will reopen — “the problem is how many hours they will be able to guarantee,” she said, adding that another problem will be a lack of teachers for the larger number of classes.
Italian media reported Friday that the committee of experts advising the government has said social distancing can be avoided for a few months if pupils wear masks while authorities look for a solution for classrooms.
Belgian schools are set to reopen on September 1 despite the rising rate of infections during the summer period.
Education experts had argued that the government shouldn’t just look at the health effects of reopening, but also the impact on education and wellbeing of children. A new study also shows that children barely get infected at school.
The regions, who are responsible for education in Belgium, decided on Friday that all schools will reopen on September 1. If the rate of infections worsen in a certain village, students of secondary schools will attend schools every other week in alternating groups. Other adjustments can be made depending on the pandemic.
The new school year starts on different dates in Germany’s 16 federal states. In several northern states, such as Berlin and Schleswig-Holstein, pupils have already returned; in southern states classes traditionally resume in September.
Education is a regional competence, meaning each state has a different plan for reopening, but Germany’s National Academy of Natural Sciences Leopoldina has issued guidelines. Its recommendations include mask-wearing for pupils aged 15 or older, small contact groups within schools and continued testing.
Some states have made masks compulsory in schools, though North Rhine-Westphalia is so far the only state to mandate mask-wearing in classrooms. Some — such as Schleswig-Holstein — are only recommending masks, while pupils in states such as Brandenburg and Berlin only have to wear them outside their classrooms.
Some teachers say the guidelines are insufficient or even contradictory. “Masks are compulsory in the building, but not in the [class]rooms,” said one teacher in a Berlin primary school who wanted to remain anonymous, adding that “students come very close to each other in the schoolyard … It would be best to have a system that divides the [classes] … so that there are [fewer] students together in one classroom.”
Poland plans to reopen schools as normal on September 1, except for a handful of counties with higher rates of coronavirus infection.
The current epidemiological situation “allows for, in the overwhelming majority of our country, in the overwhelming majority of our educational facilities … a return of standard lessons relying on contact between teachers and students,” Education Minister Dariusz Piontkowski said earlier this week.
There is no requirement to wear masks or limit class sizes, but children are being asked to wash their hands frequently and avoid contact with large groups of students.
Out of the country’s 380 districts, 19 have restrictions in place due to high levels of coronavirus cases. In those areas, the number of students allowed to gather in a single place will be limited. School directors will also have the authority to shift to virtual learning or hybrid learning models if coronavirus cases are detected in their schools.
Danish schools reopened August 10 for the new term, but many pupils already returned in the spring as the country’s swift lockdown and subsequent fall in coronavirus cases allowed it to reopen schools.
When the schools reopened, children were taught in smaller groups of 10-12, sat 2 meters apart in the classroom, and washed their hands at least every hour and a half.
The government set central guidelines but allowed municipalities flexibility in implementing the rules. “We told our members to cooperate with the local municipalities, so teachers’ worries and thoughts would be taken into consideration at all levels,” said Dorte Lange, deputy chair of the Danish Union of Teachers.
Children and teachers were not required to wear masks — and Denmark did not see a rise in infections after schools reopened.
Cristina Gallardo, Elisa Braun, Barbara Moens, Nette Nöstlinger, Jan Cienski and Charlie Duxbury contributed reporting.
Source: POLITICO https://www.politico.eu/article/back-to-school-turns-into-back-to-reality-test/?utm_source=RSS_Feed&utm_medium=RSS&utm_campaign=RSS_Syndication