Excitement meets worry as European kids head back to school

LONDON: English teacher Richard Sheriff observed this week as a group of energetic 11-year-olds entered their new secondary school for the first time – finding their classes, eating in the cafeteria, running around the hall.

The sheriff, head of the Red Kite Learning Trust, a group of primary and secondary schools in the Yorkshire area, said the familiar rituals of the school coming back to life were particularly poignant after a year and a half inspired by the coronavirus pandemic. But in addition to the general excitement, this year he had a new feeling: “panic.”

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The start of a new school year in many Northern Hemisphere countries comes as the highly contagious Delta variant coronavirus cases continue to rise – especially among children, many of whom are not yet eligible for vaccination. Still, many governments, including the UK, are determined to bring children back to classes after 18 months of lockdown, distance learning and abandoned exams. UK schools have closed for three months twice since the start of 2020, and major year-end exams have been canceled for two years, leaving university admissions in chaos.

While most European countries are retaining some restrictions for schools, the Conservative government of British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is pushing for an estimate of pre-pandemic normality this year. It has removed orders for social distancing and wearing masks and no longer requires students to be grouped in “bubbles” to limit the spread of the virus.

Instead, the government says that students should be tested regularly, and schools will be given guidance to improve ventilation.

The group of politicians and scientists advising the government has acknowledged that it is a gamble. The Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies said in August that “it is highly likely that the age groups attending school will see an exponential increase once the school opens.”

A separate independent group of scientists often critical of the British government’s response to the pandemic went ahead, calling the plan “reckless”.

But Education Secretary Gavin Williamson said testing would help root out cases, and defended the government’s strategy, calling it a “sensible balance”.

Britain, which lifted almost all pandemic restrictions on business and socializing in July, has one of the highest coronavirus rates in Europe, with more than 30,000 new confirmed infections each day. Hospitalizations and deaths are much lower than in previous surges, thanks to a vaccination campaign in which nearly 80% of people over 16 have been fully vaccinated. But there are still an average of around 100 coronavirus deaths every day in the UK.

Unlike the UK, Italy and Spain are maintaining social distancing and masks for students and staff. Italy also requires teachers to show proof of vaccination or a recent negative coronavirus test, as do Turkey and Greece.

In France, where students go back to school on Thursday, students 6 and older must wear a face covering, and if one child tests positive, entire primary school classes will be sent home.

In the Balkans, which are among the poorest in Europe, meanwhile, low vaccination rates and rising outbreaks have made it difficult for children to return to the classroom after a year and a half.

In Kosovo, where the weekly average of new cases increased more than tenfold between July and August, the start of the school year has been delayed by two weeks until September 13. Neighboring Albania has also suspended school, and the government has ordered compulsory vaccination of teachers. Only a third of the population of Albania and less than 20% of people in Kosovo have been fully vaccinated.

Even in countries with high vaccination rates, warning bells are ringing in areas where schools have already returned. Scotland has seen cases rise to the highest level of the pandemic since schools reopened in mid-August. Israel, where school reopened on Wednesday, is limiting students in areas with the highest infection rates to online learning for now.

In North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany, 30,000 students and some 300 teachers in the state of 18 million are in quarantine, two weeks after school started. The infection rate among youth between 5 and 19 is by far the highest of any age group.

The United States may signal what lies ahead. American students returned to classes in several places last month as soon as the Delta version began to take over the country, triggering dozens of outbreaks in schools. In some states, children now make up the largest proportion of new COVID-19 infections.

Many schools have closed completely or have started online learning because so many children and staff became ill or had close contact with infected people. In Georgia state, several school superintendents said they experienced more cases and quarantines in the first few weeks of class than last year.

The start of the school year has sparked fierce battles between parents and administrators over mask requirements that have at times turned into violence.

European countries appear less polarized, but tensions over masks and vaccines are rising in countries including Poland, where school leaders are drawn to pushback from parents.

“I can’t imagine a 7-year-old wearing a mask anywhere in school, even for five minutes,” said Alina Nowak, the mother of a student at an elementary school in southern Warsaw. “They are under a lot of stress because it is returning after the lockdown.”

Teacher unions in many countries have opposed compulsory vaccination for school workers. In Italy, protests against the government’s “green pass” system of vaccine passports have sparked violence, including an attack in which a reporter for the national daily La Repubblica was repeatedly punched in the face.

Many countries with high vaccine rates are banking on vaccination to serve as a protective shield between infection and disease – especially in the UK as there are few other restrictions. Most UK teachers have been vaccinated, although this is not mandatory. The sheriff says only two of the 1,400 staff at his schools have refused the vaccine.

But most school children remain vulnerable. The UK is currently offering the shots to those aged 16 and over.

Meanwhile, some schools are taking tough measures on the advice of the government.

Pepe Di’Iasio is wearing a mask in the hallways and communal areas of Wales High School near Rotherham in northern England where he is the principal.

“We realized that we would start with caution and put on masks instead of going back to where the spike should be,” he said.

“I predict we’ll see more wearing masks next month. I mean, I hope not,” he said. “But I think experience will tell us that they will.”

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