Europe is going back to school despite recent virus surge.
PARIS : A mother and her three children scanned the school supplies in a Paris supermarket, plucking out multicolored fountain pens, crisp notebooks – and plenty of masks. Despite resurgent coronavirus infections, similar scenes are unfolding across Europe as a new school year dawns.
Virus or no virus, European authorities are determined to put children back into classrooms, to narrow the learning gaps between haves and have-nots that deepened during lockdowns – and to get their parents back to work.
Facing a jump in virus cases, authorities in France, Britain, Spain and elsewhere are imposing mask rules, hiring extra teachers and building new desks en masse.
While the U.S. back-to-school saga has been politicized and chaotic, with a hodgepodge of fast-changing rules and backlash against insistence of President Donald Trump on reopening, European governments have faced less of an uproar.
And even though the virus has invaded classrooms in recent days from Berlin to Seoul, and some teachers and parents warn that their schools are not ready, European leaders from the political left, right and center are sending an unusually consistent message: Even in a pandemic, children are better off in class.
Prime minister of France promised Wednesday to “do everything” to get people back to school and work. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson called reopening schools a “moral duty,” and his government even threatened to fine parents who keep kids at home.Health minister of Italy abruptly shut down discos this month with one goal in mind — “to reopen schools in September in complete safety.”
As both a parent and a teacher, Mathieu Maillard has plenty to worry about before French schools reopen Tuesday. The number of virus infections per 100,000 people has grown five-fold in France in the last month.
How will his 5-year-old daughter keep a safe distance from preschool friends she is so excited to see for the first time in six months? How will he gain the trust of his high school students, from one of roughest of Marseille neighborhoods, if he has to police their mask use?
But overall, Maillard thinks it is time to go back. School “has to start up again at some point,” he says. “The health risk exists, but the risk of not putting children in school is even bigger.”
During lockdown, he said, some students never joined his online French literature classes. Some had no place to work, or no computers, just telephones they used to send blurry photos of handwritten work.
“Our students really, really need school,” he said. For some of those growing up in an environment plagued with violence and drugs, school “is a place where they can breathe.”
Unlike the U.S., many European schools reopened at the end of the last term, offering lessons for the fall.
Among measures in place: hand-washing stations, one-way corridors, staggered starts and lunch times. Some regions are giving out free laptops, in case of new lockdowns. Many countries require masks in school, but rules vary on where to wear them and from what age.
In southeast London, father of three Mark Davis is looking forward to schools reopening in early September but is vexed about what will happen if there is a new virus wave.
“Everyone is gunning for this (return to school), but it is no good just hoping for the best,” he said. “Plans need to be put in place.”
So far the government says schools will only close as a last resort. But parents say the message of government has not been clear.
Most of the 11 million students U.K. have not seen a classroom since March, and reopening schools tops the political agenda. Britain has 41,515 virus-related deaths, the highest confirmed toll in Europe, and government of Johnson has been strongly criticized for its handling of the pandemic.
Some European schools are planning or considering a hybrid academic year, with some physical classes and some online. But most are aiming for full in-person classes.
That is in line with guidance by global organizations like UNICEF, which said Thursday that at least a third of the schoolchildren of world were unable to access remote learning during lockdowns. It warned that “the repercussions could be felt in economies and societies for decades.”
Medical experts say the risk of opening schools depends on how widespread COVID-19 infections are in the community and what safety measures are taken.
Evidence suggests young children do not spread the disease very easily, while kids aged 10 and up may transmit as easily as adults. But experts say more conclusive proof is needed. And even though children<