Back to school amid worries over Covid spike

Different rules are in place across the EU but governments insist on reopening

Photo: EPA French PM Jean Castex visits a classroom on the first day back at school at the Louis de Frontenac Elementary School in Chateauroux, central France, 1 September.

Schools open their doors in many EU countries nearly six months after the coronavirus outbreak forced them to close. Some teachers and parents worry the reopening will accelerate the spread of Covid-19, but governments have insisted it should go ahead. Countries are taking different approaches to minimise contagion amid students.

French children returned to school on Tuesday, after a two-month-long summer break that followed two weeks of obligatory schooling just before the holidays. Teachers and pupils between 11 and 18 will be required to wear masks both indoors and outdoors. However French teacher Sophie Venetitay from the principal high school teachers' union said: “We are missing clear rules on everything that happens outside of classrooms. For example, at the library, can we let a pupil borrow a book that has just been returned?”

Long queues have been reported outside several schools in Belgium on the first day of the new academic year on 1 September. Parents in Brussels said they had to wait in a 200-metre line to take their children from schools amid requirement for them to be dropped off one by one at the front door.

In Spain primary and secondary schools start the academic year across the regions in the first three weeks of September. School attendance is mandatory, as are face masks in class for children aged six and over. Students must wash their hands at least five times a day. Social distancing must be observed. Temperature checks are carried out each morning, at school or at home.

In Germany children have been returning to school fulltime since early August. In most states, children and teachers have to wear masks indoors except when at their desks. North Rhine Westphalia dropped a rule that older students wear masks in lessons after criticism from parents and doctors. At the same time some online lessons continue in special circumstances.

In Greece schools were expected to reopen on 7 September but the returning was postponed in a week. Teachers and students will be required to wear masks in class and other indoor spaces, with each being given one fabric mask. Class sizes will be limited to 17 students.

Schools in most Italian regions are set to reopen on 14 September. Measures to minimise contagion are still being finalised. The government hired 40,000 more temporary teachers and ordered new single-seat desks, but some won't be ready until October. Mask wearing will be obligatory for those arriving and leaving school, but they can be removed during lessons if there is a safe distance between desks. The government has agreed to provide more funds to increase public transport to allow for safe travel to schools. If a student or teacher is infected, it will be up to head teachers and health authorities to decide whether to shut down whole schools or single classes, or impose quarantine on those directly involved.

Dutch elementary and high schools began reopening in stages in August, as normal. Neither students nor teachers are required to wear face masks. Some teachers have been reluctant to return to work and a number of schools introduced their own mask requirements. If a student is infected, everyone in his or her household must stay home for 10 days. Children aged above six years who show symptoms must stay home and get tested, younger pupils may attend school and daycare even with mild cold symptoms, but must stay home if they have a fever.

In Norway children are not required to wear face masks and school hours remain largely unchanged. Classmates stick together and do not mix at school with members of other cohorts. During breaks, each class is assigned a different area of the playground. Children with symptoms must stay home and be tested for Covid infection. In kindergartens, children can attend even if they have a sniffle but must stay home if symptoms are more serious. Online learning is no longer an option.

Swedish schools stayed open throughout the pandemic and welcomed students back in mid-August after the summer break. Masks are not mandatory. Keeping schools open in spring did not lead to higher infection rates among students compared with neighbouring Finland where schools temporarily closed, according to a joint report by the two countries' public health agencies.

In Poland schools reopened on 1 September. Requests by some schools and municipalities to delay school reopenings have been declined. Face masks are not compulsory in class. Headmasters decide on use of masks in common areas and on whether to stagger school hours. Primary and high schools in cities such as Warsaw are crowded and some educators say it will be impossible to respect social distancing rules even with staggered hours. Families who decline to send their children to school may face a fine of up to 10,000 zlotys ($2,710).



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