Across Europe, the start of the new school year was meant to signal a return to normality. Countries such as Denmark allowed schools to reopen for the remainder of the summer term after the worst of the pandemic's first wave had passed. while others such as Italy (like Northern Ireland) kept pupils at home from March to the summer holidays

All tried to reassure parents and children that in-person teaching would restart in the Autumn, yet the planned reopening of schools could not come at a worse time with many European countries experiencing a spike in coronavirus cases. This has forced some schools to close their doors again, including in the northern German state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, where four schools had to partly shut after reopening a fortnight ago due to a rise in coronavirus cases.

A major problem is that science remains uncertain what role schools play in the transmission of the virus. Far fewer cases have been detected in children than adults, but scientists still aren’t sure how likely children are to pass the virus on to others.

Prof Paul Hunter is specialist in Medical Microbiology. At East Anglia University - a credible source – noted that “…it has become clear that there is a link between closing schools and controlling the spread of the virus.”[1]

This is supported by some a recent US study by the US Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)[2]

Jonathan Ball, Professor for Molecular Virology at Nottingham University, warned about the risks of reopening schools, saying “We don’t yet understand whether children play a major role in transmission, either to each other, or to the wider community, though we do know that they can be very good incubators or spreaders….”[3]

The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control’s most recent evidence suggests "that re-opening schools has not been associated with significant increases in community transmission," but acknowledged that there was "conflicting published evidence" on the impact of school closures and re-openings.

Yet parents and pupils have more to worry about than potential health risks: Some surveys have found that the school closures have had negative effects on the education and wellbeing of many children and teenagers, while parents have struggled to cope with combining remote work and home-schooling and fear its reintroduction.

For these reasons, and to assist with reactivating economies, countries are pushing ahead with school re-openings despite a potential second wave looming in the Autumn. A summary of how six EU countries are hoping to keep schools open and the virus under control is set out in the Politico website.[4]

Denmark:

The UK school restart was modelled, at least in propaganda terms, on the Danish restart model. Danish schools reopened August 10 for the new term, but many pupils already returned in the spring as the country's swift lockdown and subsequent fall in coronavirus cases allowed it to reopen schools.

On reopening, children were taught in smaller groups of 10-12 (requiring more teachers to be employed) sat 2 meters apart in the classroom and washed their hands at every hour and a half. Government central guidelines allowed municipalities flexibility in implementing the rules, with Dorte Lange, deputy chair of the Danish Union of Teachers noting: “We told our members to cooperate with the local municipalities, so teachers’ worries and thoughts would be taken into consideration at all levels.”   Children and teachers were not required to wear masks — and Denmark has not seen a rise in infections after schools reopened.

Poland:

Poland plans to reopen schools as normal on September 1, except for a handful of counties with higher rates of coronavirus infection. Education Minister Dariusz Piontkowski noted that the current epidemiological situation “allows for, in the overwhelming majority of our country, in the overwhelming majority of our educational facilities … a return of standard lessons relying on contact between teachers and students.”

There is no requirement to wear masks or limit class sizes, but children are asked to wash their hands frequently and avoid contact with large groups of students. Some 19 of the country’s 380 districts have restrictions in place due to high levels of coronavirus cases. In those areas, the number of students allowed to gather in a single place will be limited. School directors will also have the authority to shift to virtual learning or hybrid learning models if coronavirus cases are detected in their schools.

France:

French schools are set to reopen on September 1, except in areas declared as “active virus circulation zones” like Paris or the Marseille region, where schools could remain closed.

Pupils do not need to social distance in areas where keeping a distance is impossible, either indoors or outdoors. However, pupils older than 11 will have to wear masks both indoors and outdoors if a minimum distance of 1 meter cannot be guaranteed, as will teacher. Schools will have to provide masks for their staff — but the education ministry said it only has three months' worth of masks stockpiled. In effect, pupils and students are expected to buy their own. Teachers' unions are accusing the government of “aggravating chaos” and creating “degrading” conditions of work and say plans for distance learning are incomplete if they are needed to help cope with a second wave.

Spain: There is no national back-to-school date in Spain, with the first schools reopening on September 7 in some regions. As well as social distancing, the government's recommendations include social distancing and using facilities such as libraries and canteens as classrooms to allow for more space.

Teachers complain that the guidance allows for contradictory rules within the country — Spain’s 17 regions can set their own education policies — which could lead to confusion.

The Catalan regional government (like Denmark) is hiring 5,000 extra teachers to create stable "bubbles" of pupils in order to limit the overall contacts within schools. The Madrid region intends to hire 600 teaching staff and has proposed four different action plans depending on the severity of the pandemic (including partial attendance and distance learning). In the northeast region of La Rioja, regional authorities are proposing that pupils older than 14 could choose online education or attend school in the afternoon rather than the morning.

Italy:

Italian schools are set to reopen on September 14 after staying closed for six months. Staff will have to wear masks, and the government will decide in the last week of August whether children older than 6 will also need to do so. Classes will be smaller to allow for social distancing among the country's 8 million pupils — which means that space for new classrooms is needed. But according to the association of school headmasters, Italy is still missing 20,000 additional classrooms for a total of 400,000 students.

Local authorities have been tasked with finding these spaces, with some resorting to creative solutions such as using bed and breakfast establishments as classrooms. Italy is confident that schools will reopen but recognizes the problem is how many hours they will be able to guarantee, recognizing that another problem will be a lack of teachers for the larger number of classes.

Italian media reported Friday that the committee of experts advising the government has said social distancing can be avoided for a few months if pupils mitigate by wearing masks while authorities look for a solution for classrooms.

Belgium:

Belgian schools, where regions are responsible for education, are set to reopen on September 1 despite the rising rate of infections over the summer. If the rate of infection worsens in a certain village, students of secondary schools will attend school every other week in alternating groups. Other adjustments may be made depending on the pandemic.

Education experts had argued that the government shouldn’t just look at the health effects of reopening, but also the impact on education and wellbeing of children. A new Belgian study[5] shows that children barely get infected at school.

Germany:

The new school year starts on different dates in Germany's 16 federal states. In several northern states, such as Berlin and Schleswig-Holstein, pupils have already returned; in southern states classes traditionally resume in September.

Education is a regional competence, but Germany's National Academy of Natural Sciences Leopoldina has issued guidelines, with its recommendations include mask-wearing for pupils aged 15 or older, small contact groups within schools and continued testing.

Some states have made masks compulsory in schools, though North Rhine-Westphalia is so far the only state to mandate mask-wearing in classrooms. Some — such as Schleswig-Holstein — are only recommending masks, while pupils in states such as Brandenburg and Berlin only have to wear them outside their classrooms.

Some teachers say the guidelines are insufficient or even contradictory and concerns remain that students come very close to each other in the schoolyard. There is an increasing lobby to have a system that divides the classes so that there are fewer students together in one classroom.

Conclusion:

The experience of Northern Ireland is not unique and the various European education systems experience many of the same problems. That said, the intention of the Minister in Northern Ireland to move quickly to a “full-fat” return (effectively eschewing social distancing) raises some issues where we could learn from our European neighbours, notably in respect of:

  • Lower class sizes, and the employment of more teachers;
  • Smaller protective “bubbles”;
  • Better and more open collaboration with education stakeholders and unions;
  • Better access to “the science”;
  • Use (or commandeering) of local government to provide larger premises to better enable social distancing
  • Reconsideration of partial-return and of distance and online learning as part of the curricular ‘mix’;
  • Reconsideration of wearing face-masks, notably in mid to upper secondary school and in practical class subjects.