As countries begin to loosen their lockdowns, Europe’s children look set to play a central role in how the next stage of the coronavirus crisis unfolds.
Across the Continent, governments have been grappling with the same question: How and when to reopen schools and kindergartens. At stake is the education of tens of millions of children and the return of their parents to the workplace. And at risk is the creation of new breeding grounds for coronavirus infections, just as Europe is getting over the worst.
“Schools are, in a sense, petri dishes,” said Per Block, an Oxford University sociologist who has been modeling how locked-down countries might reintroduce limited social contact. “You have all these people coming and going, and they could take the disease back with them.”
Italy is keeping schools shut until September, and Spain is thinking of doing the same. Germany, France and Belgium will reopen theirs over the next few weeks, despite concerns that this will jeopardize the fragile progress of recent weeks. Poland’s are staying shut until at least May 24, while the United Kingdom has yet to set a date. Denmark and Norway have reopened theirs already, and Sweden has kept schools for the under-16s open this whole time, along with shops and restaurants.
The effect of the closures on productivity has been evident to any frazzled parent in recent weeks. A study by the U.K.’s Institute for Fiscal Studies found that even when schools and day care are open, parents spend 60 percent of their time on work or child care. “For some groups of parents, combined responsibilities for work and childcare during the coronavirus lockdown could take up virtually the entire day,” it concluded.
The shift to online learning has thrown inequalities into sharp relief; the poorest may not have access to the internet at home, let alone a laptop.
But the fact that countries have taken such varied decisions shows just how difficult it has been to balance the need for an economic reboot with the potential health risks — especially when armed with limited data about the possible outcomes.
Part of the problem, explained French epidemiologist Pascal Crépey, is that it is still unclear what role children play in the spread of the coronavirus. “Our early theories were based on the idea that this virus behaved a lot like the flu, which meant it was likely that children would play a major role in spreading it,” he said. “On that basis, closing schools made a lot of sense. But we’re noticing more and more that things seem to be more complicated than that.”
The degree to which the virus spares children has been striking since the start of the pandemic: They are much less likely than adults to become seriously ill. But researchers now also believe the young may be less likely to spread the virus than first thought. One study notably found that a 9-year-old boy who contracted the virus at a French ski resort did not pass it on to anyone, despite coming into contact with more than 170 people.
And yet there is “nothing definitive,” stressed Crépey. “There will certainly be cases of infections linked to the reopening of schools.”
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The move seems particularly risky in countries where children tend to spend a lot of time with their grandparents, such as Italy. Scientists advising the Italian government have warned that reopening the schools could ultimately lead to a second lockdown, a risk Education Minister Lucia Azzolina appeared unwilling to take given that the term is due to finish in early June anyway.
“As a country we have made important efforts to respond to the health emergency in recent weeks — huge sacrifices which cannot be in vain,” she told parliament last week. On Sunday, Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte said schools would stay shut until September.
But many Italian parents say they and their children have made enough sacrifices. More than 80,000 have signed a petition urging Azzolina to make reopening schools and nurseries a priority.
Elsewhere, though, parents have taken to social media to express unease at the idea of sending their children back into contact with hundreds of others. In Norway, more than 27,000 people have joined a Facebook group called “My child should not be a guinea pig for COVID-19.”
In France, plans to reopen schools progressively from May 11 came as a surprise to medical experts, and the government’s scientific advisers have made clear that the decision was “political.” They thought it would be safer to keep them shut until September.
“There is absolutely no logic to this decision,” Patrick Bouet, president of France’s leading doctors’ association, told Le Figaro. For one thing, “it is very difficult to enforce social distancing in a school environment.”
And yet another rise in infections is apparently a risk the French government is willing to take. France is officially in recession after the economy shrank 6 percent in the first quarter, its worst performance since 1945. President Emmanuel Macron is desperate to get the labor force back to work as soon as is safely possible.
French Education Minister Jean-Michel Blanquer says the return to school is voluntary, and insists everything possible is being done to prevent infections spreading among children. Gallons of hand sanitizer are being ordered; break times are being staggered. Classes are being limited to 15 pupils, which means up to half will be expected to join online or work independently from home.
Block, the Oxford sociologist, said such measures could help to relaunch the education system in a way that keeps new infections to a minimum, but a lot depends on local circumstances. Reopening a village school might pose a relatively low risk, because it means exposing each child’s household to relatively few new social contacts.
“But if you have a fancy private school where people are driven half an hour from all directions to go there, that’s more of a problem,” he added.
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The question of whether to prioritize older children or the youngest has also been a thorny one. Denmark has sent the under-11s back first, the logic being that older kids are more capable of following distance learning. That has come as a relief to parents of small children in particular, who can now finally try to get some work done.
Germany’s National Academy of Sciences, Leopoldina, came to the opposite conclusion: that day care should reopen last, because toddlers are terrible at social distancing. Pre-schooler parents were soon up in arms. It didn’t help that Leopoldina’s panel was mostly male and well beyond parenting age, prompting 40 female professors to hit back in an open letter. Among various issues that they felt hadn’t been recognized: “The main burden for the loss of institutional care is often borne by women.”
There is no hard data on who has borne the brunt of Europe’s educational shutdown. But given that the Continent’s women carry out some two-thirds of unpaid work in general, gender researchers suggest the onus has likely more often fallen on them to keep toddlers entertained and teenagers focused on their books. Anecdotal evidence suggests female academics are submitting far fewer papers under lockdown than their male colleagues.
Things have been even harder for single parents. Christelle Mejri has been waiting for news more anxiously than most: She is not only a single mother of three, but a high school principal. The shutdown has meant juggling her own children’s education with the stress of coordinating a distance-learning program for her school in Bras-sur-Meuse, eastern France.
“I feel like I’ve had to be Wonder Woman for the past six weeks,” she said. Many of her pupils’ parents are reluctant to send their children back to school, but for her it will bring a desperately needed return to normality.
The French government sees the return as crucial for avoiding “disastrous social consequences” more broadly. The shift to online learning has thrown inequalities into sharp relief; the poorest may not have access to the internet at home, let alone a laptop.
Some authorities have been lending 4G-equipped tablets to families, including in France, Britain and Austria. But it’s not only a question of technology: kids from disadvantaged homes are less likely to have a parent checking on their studies.
“I have between a third and a half of the students actually handing in their work,” said a science teacher from one of Paris’ poorest suburbs, Grigny. She did not want to be named.
“As for the rest,” she added, “I haven’t heard from them since the start of the lockdown.”
Hannah Roberts in Rome and Charlie Duxbury in Stockholm contributed reporting.