Europe’s fight to stop the coronovirus epidemic has a new front: class.
More than a third of the UK’s 1,700 coronaviruses, defined as at least two cases, occurred in educational settings via sept 27 over four weeks. In France, about 35% of the 1,070 outbreaks under investigation are in schools or universities. Spain, home to Europe’s largest epidemic, reported cases of Kovid-19 as 4.5% of its schools.
In Italy, where the resurgence of the virus has been very slow, the government reported 2,438 cases among elementary, junior-high and high-school students on 3 October, compared to two weeks earlier. Germany has not reported national data showing the effects of the virus on its school system, but public-health officials said it emerged this week that the epidemic had little effect on schools as they reopened.
Authorities have responded to some outbreaks of classrooms, or on rare occasions, by closing entire schools. In most cases, however, European authorities and many parents have pushed their schools to remain in session, stating that the social and economic costs of the missing school are too high.
Sending students home, especially youth, forces parents to miss work. It also covers the educational failures that millions of children have had to endure this spring when they have been forced to go to home-school for months. Classroom closures hit children from low-income homes particularly hard because their parents lacked flexible work schedules.
In an interview, France’s Minister of Education Jean-Michel Blanchere said, “The best thing for children in this way is to send them to school.”
Part of the challenge facing governments is making policy to combat a virus that behaves differently in different age groups. Preliminary data suggests that adolescence is a turning point. In France, the incidence of the virus for children between the ages of 10 and 19 rose to an average of 129.2 per 100,000 from 28 September to 4 October, compared to 56.5 in the last week of August before resuming school. For children younger than 10 years, the incidence rate increased from just 16.9 to 21.9 during this period.
Outbreak in French Schools
About half of the clusters in educational settings are in junior high and high schools.
Number of groups identified since May
Junior High School
European policy, however, is all over the map, especially when it comes to wearing masks in class. Although the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control published a report to guide health experts working with schools, countries have adopted their own policies.
The UK has no requirement to wear masks in schools, no matter what, while Spain requires masks for all students 6 years or older. In France, the junior requirement begins in junior high, with engravings for the lunch table and gym class. In Italy, students and teachers of all grades are required to wear masks until they take their seats in class. However, some schools have started asking children to wear masks for sitting as well.
Gina Antanetti, a high-school principal in Fondi, southern Italy, said, “We are not able to deliver a very simple message through this: If you wear a mask in school and leave it immediately after school, it’s useless.”
The spread of Kovid-19 is increasingly affecting young people.
Kovid-19 ratio of cases in Italy in last 30 days, notified by age group
Whenever the student tests positive for Kovid-19, whatever the age of the student, Italy has blanket rules to exclude classmates. Architect Elonora Bottlin, who lives in the northeastern city of Vicenza, said her 5-year-old son was forced to stay in the house after testing positive from a classmate.
“They started school only four weeks ago and we are already there,” Ms Bottlin said. “Who knows how many times this will happen.”
In France, the government is re-examining its approach. Mr Blanker said authorities are no longer enforcing a rule that requires more than three confirmed schools to be closed.
When a classmate or teacher tests positive, they are not sent home when they are wearing masks at the time of contact. This change allows junior high and high schools, where masks are mandatory, to remain open.
“If the children were not in school, they would likely participate in activities that are more conducive to the spread of the virus,” Mr. Blanquer said.
However, some French teachers question whether the government’s approach is very relaxed, especially in a country that is now home to the second largest affairs in Europe.
Jacques Allemani, a high-school teacher in the northern city of Kallis, said authorities have kept the teachers in the dark about how much the virus has spread. There have been at least three cases of Kovid-19 in his school. She finds out that one of her students was infected after receiving an email from her asking for homework.
“Officials think the virus stops at the school’s gate,” Mr. Alemani said.
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French teachers also say that they are not given enough resources to keep the virus at bay. Students often share a desk, making it difficult to socially distance, and most schools do not have the equipment or staff to check the temperature of children before entering school.
“I am not an FBI agent. If parents send their children to school when they are ill, there is no way for me to find out, ”said Hughes Poire, a junior high school principal in Nyrilly-sur-Marne, a Paris suburb.
“The number of infections in French schools is not particularly adequate,” Mr. Blanquer said. “Children have the right to education, and it’s a priority,” he said.
Paola Motté, a 15-year-old student in a Parisian suburb, said wearing masks throughout school has become difficult. There are a few exceptions.
“I don’t understand that in gym class we can all shut it down even if we’re indoors, build a human pyramid and throw it around a Frisbee,” she said.
Several of her classmates were recently released after coming into contact with the infected person. They all tested negative. “We’re all going to catch it at some point,” she said.
Christophe Chapuse, who runs a high school of more than 2,300 students in Bourg-en-Bresse, near Lyons, said children and teachers are happy to be back in school and are adjusting to the new rules.
So far, half a dozen children at school had tested positive for the virus, and another 15 children had been sent home because they were in close contact with an infected person, Mr. Chapsule said.
“Nothing is more sad than an empty school,” Mr. Chapsu said.
– Jason Douglas in London contributed to this article.
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