Chattanooga Times Free Press
Excitement meets worry as kids head back to school
LONDON — English educator Richard Sheriff watched this week as a group of energetic 11-year-olds entered their new secondary school for the first time — finding their classrooms, eating in the cafeteria, racing around the halls.
The familiar rituals of a school sparking back to life were especially poignant after a year and a half of disruption driven by the coronavirus pandemic, said Sheriff, head of the Red Kite Learning Trust, a group of primary and secondary schools in the Yorkshire region. But in addition to the usual excitement, he had a new feeling this year: “Trepidation.”
The start of a new school year in many Northern Hemisphere nations comes as the highly infectious delta variant continues to drive a surge in coronavirus cases.
Still, many governments including Britain’s are determined to get children back into classrooms after 18 stop-start months of lockdowns, remote learning and abandoned exams. U.K. schools, have closed for three-month stretches twice since early 2020, and major year-end exams have been canceled two years running, throwing university admissions into chaos.
While most European countries are retaining some restrictions for schools, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Conservative government is pushing this year for something approximating pre-pandemic normality. It has removed social distancing and mask-wearing orders and no longer requires pupils to be grouped into “bubbles” to limit the spread of the virus.
Instead, the government says students should be tested regularly, and schools will be given guidance on improving ventilation.
Politicians and the group of scientists that advises the government have acknowledged it’s a gamble. The Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies said in August “it is highly likely that exponential increases will be seen in school-attending age groups after schools open.”
A separate independent group of scientists that is often critical of the British government’s pandemic response went further, calling the plan “reckless.”
But Education Secretary Gavin Williamson said testing would help root out cases, and defended the government’s strategy as striking a “sensible balance.”
Britain, which lifted almost all pandemic restrictions on business and socializing in July, has among the highest coronavirus rates in Europe, with upwards of 30,000 new confirmed infections each day. Hospitalizations and deaths remain far lower than during previous surges, thanks to an inoculation campaign that has seen nearly 80% of people over 16 fully vaccinated. But Britain is still averaging about 100 coronavirus deaths every day.
Unlike the U.K., 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 headed back to school Thursday, face coverings must be worn by pupils 6 and up, and whole primary school classes will be sent home if one child tests positive.
In the Balkan nations that are among Europe’s poorest, meanwhile, low vaccination rates and surging outbreaks have made it difficult to get kids back to class after a year and a half.
In Kosovo, where the weekly average of new cases rose more than tenfold between July and August, the start of the school year has been delayed by two weeks until Sept. 13. Neighboring Albania also postponed school, and the government has ordered mandatory vaccinations for teachers. Only a third of Albania’s population, and less than 20% of people in Kosovo, have been fully vaccinated.
Even in countries with high inoculation rates, warning bells are sounding in areas where schools have already returned. Scotland has seen cases soar to the highest level yet in the pandemic since schools reopened in mid-August. Israel, where school resumed Wednesday, is restricting students in areas with the highest infection rates to online learning for now.