There is a new front in Europe’s struggle to curb the coronavirus pandemic: the classroom.
Rising numbers are a sign of early warning for the United States, where schools open to private classes across the country are trying to prevent clusters at a time when cases are increasing nationwide.
More than a third of the 1,700 outbreaks of coronavirus in the United Kingdom, identified as at least two, occurred in educational settings in the four weeks to September 27. About 35% of the 1,070 outbreaks investigated in France are in schools or universities. Spain, home to Europe’s largest epidemic, reported cases of Covid-19 in 4.5% of its schools as of September 24th.
In Italy, where the resurgence of the virus is much slower, as of October 3, the government had reported 2,438 cases among primary, lower and upper secondary students, up from 809 two weeks earlier. Germany has not released national data showing the impact of the virus on its school system, but public health authorities said this week the pandemic did not appear to have had a major impact on schools since they reopened.
Authorities responded to some outbreaks by quarantining classes or, in rare cases, shutting down entire schools. In most cases, however, European officials and many parents are pushing for their schools to continue to operate, saying the social and economic costs of the missing school are too high.
Sending students home, especially young ones, forces parents to miss work. It also combines the educational setbacks that millions of children suffered this spring when they were forced to go to school for months. Closing classrooms particularly affects children in low-income households, as their parents do not have a flexible work schedule.
“The best thing we can do for children during this is to send them to school,”
Part of the challenge facing governments is to adapt policies to counter the virus, which behaves differently in different age groups. Early evidence suggests that adolescence is a turning point. In France, the incidence of the virus in children aged 10 to 19 averaged 129.2 per 100,000 per week from 28 September to 4 October, compared with 56.5 in the last week of August before school resumed. In children under 10, the incidence rate increased to only 21.9 out of 16 over the same period.
Epidemics in French schools
Almost half of the clusters in the educational circles are in junior high school and high school.
Number of identified clusters since May
ON THE CLUSTERS
Junior high school
However, European policy is entirely at stake, especially when it comes to wearing masks in the classroom. While the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control published a report to guide health professionals working with schools, the countries adopted their own policies.
The United Kingdom does not require masks to be worn in schools, regardless of grade, while Spain requires masks for all students over the age of 6. In France, the mask requirement starts from the junior high school stage with exceptions carved for the lunch table and the gym. In Italy, students and teachers in all classes must wear masks while taking their seats in the classroom. However, some schools have started asking children to wear a mask, even when sitting down.
“We can’t understand this very simple message: If you wear the mask to school and take it off as soon as you leave school, it’s useless,” said Gina Antonetti, director of the Fondi High School in southern Italy.
The spread of Covid-19 is increasingly affecting young people
The proportion of Covid-19 cases reported in Italy in the last 30 days, by age group
The cases in recent weeks are much higher than at the beginning of school
Italy also has general rules for quarantining classmates when a student takes a positive Covid-19 test, regardless of the student’s age. Architect Eleonora Botin, who lives in the northeastern city of Vicenza, said her 5-year-old son was forced to stay home after a classmate tested positive.
“They only started school four weeks ago and we are already there,” Ms Botin said. “Who knows how many times it will happen.”
In France, the government is calibrating its approach. Authorities no longer apply a systematic rule requiring schools with more than three confirmed cases to be closed, Mr Blanquer said.
Students are also no longer sent home if a classmate or teacher has positive results, as long as they have been wearing masks during contact. This change allows junior high schools and high schools where masks are mandatory to remain open.
“If the children were not in school, they would probably be involved in activities that are more conducive to the spread of the virus,” Mr Blanker said.
However, some French teachers doubt whether the government’s approach is too calm, especially in a country that is now home to the second largest number of cases in Europe.
Jacques Alemanni, a high school teacher in the northern city of Calais, said authorities had kept teachers in the dark about the spread of the virus. At least three cases of Covid-19 have been reported at his school. He learned that one of his students was infected after receiving an email from her asking for homework.
“The authorities seem to think the virus is stopping at the school gate,” Mr Alemanni said.
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French teachers also say they have not been given enough resources to keep the virus at bay. Students often share a desk that makes social distance difficult, and most schools do not have the equipment or staff to check children’s temperatures before entering school.
“I’m not an FBI agent. If parents send their children to school when they are sick, there is no way for me to know, “said Hugh Poirier, director of a junior high school in Paris, a suburb of Neuilly-sur-Marne.
“The number of infections in French schools is not very significant,” Mr Blanker said. “Children have the right to education and that is a priority,” he added.
Paola Mote, a 15-year-old student in the Paris suburbs, said it was difficult to get used to wearing a mask throughout the school day. There are some exceptions.
“I don’t understand why in a fitness class we can all take it down, even if we’re indoors, make a human pyramid and throw a frisbee,” she said.
Several of her classmates were recently quarantined after contact with an infected person. Everyone tested negative. “We’ll all catch him at some point,” she said.
Christophe Shapui, who runs a high school with more than 2,300 students in Bourg-en-Bresse, near Lyon, said children and teachers are happy to be back in school and adjusting to the new rules.
So far, half a dozen children at the school have tested positive for the virus, and another 15 children have been sent home because they have been in close contact with an infected person, Mr Chapuis said.
“There is nothing sadder than an empty school,” Mr Chapuis said.
– Jason Douglas from London contributed to this article.
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