Written by Jacopo Lazzarin

Part of the series ‘The state of Education at the time of Coronavirus’

The world of education is back to full-speed activity. Schools have reopened all over Europe and, in some countries, they have done so much more than two months ago. Children have started one of the most unusual and alienating school years in decades. Up to a few months ago, it was not even sure European students would be allowed to go back to class. But, fortunately, the conditions of the pandemic in August were such that pupils could safely return to their desks. It was not, obviously, as if the virus had not existed. Quite the contrary actually. 

Everywhere, new regulations have been imposed and strict protocols are applied to protect children’s health. Masks may be mandatory – depending on the country and/or state – within school grounds with the exception of classes, whilst in other areas masks may have to be worn at all times. Rules have been designed to limit students’ contacts, for instance not sharing a desk or not engaging in close-contact activities. However, such rules vary considerably from country to country. In Italy, for example, multiple-shift schooling is applied, hence, students enter schools at different times according to the grade they belong to. They are then asked to sit as far as possible from their classmates and, as a result, many admit to feeling more isolated compared to pre-pandemic times (La Repubblica, 2020). Other countries prefer to apply less strict rules. For example, the UK leaves decisions to individual schools and colleges, which may require face-covering where social distancing is not possible (Gov.uk, 2020). So far, we have focused on the daily life of students, however I would like to examine another highly-discussed topic in recent months: the effect of reopening schools on a country’s infection rate.

Several studies have focused on this issue and the results vary. In a recent research paper analysing the effects of reopening schools in the UK, there seems to be a difference between primary and secondary school reopenings. The former seems to be of less impact on the spread of the virus compared to the latter (Keeling et al., 2020). Another piece of research conducted in Île-de-France in May has shown that reopening all schools might lead to ICUs (intensive care units) being overwhelmed (Di Domenico et al., 2020). There has been a surge in cases across the continent but how much school reopenings contributed to it is not clear. An article published last month analysed how no major outbreaks related to schools being open for more than a month had been observed in Germany (Morris and Weber-Steinhaus, 2020). But, as is quite obvious, the real point to be worried about is the infection rate within a community. How should we respond to this rate being high? 

The answer to this question defines the education system for the next few months. How much do we prioritize schools over other activities? What threshold rate will cause schools to be shut in some communities? And when is it more convenient – both for children and for the wider population – to keep students at home? Personally, I think schools are too important to be sacrificed. They are the place where we can build tomorrow’s society – and a country with no tomorrow has got no future. Closing schools should be the last step to be implemented to contain the virus. Students shall have the right to attend classes as long as their doing so is not an unbearable risk for the wider community. Moreover, I regard school attending as crucial in preserving pupils’ mental health. For many, schools are the main place to socialize and spend time with people of similar age. Being constrained to sorely spending time with close relatives would be damaging for children – both in the near and distant future.

In relation to such concerns, I have appreciated Josep Borrell’s (High Representative of the European Union, 2019) article highlighting how badly education worldwide could be affected by Covid (Borrell, 2020). His anxieties are real and cannot be underestimated – at stake is our long-term success. The possible damage to education may have long-lasting effects and we should do everything possible to protect our future.

I fully understand that schools may be required to close if infections skyrocket. At the same time, I am worried about having a generation of young students who are forced to eliminate social contacts, who may not attend classes, and who may experience an undue impairment in their education journey. The balance between the two tendencies – closing schools and keeping them open – is difficult to identify, but we have the duty, as a society, to at least try to find it. If we don’t, the price to be paid will be significantly high.


References

“Gli Studenti Raccontano Il Rientro In Classe: “Orari Rigidi, Uscite Scaglionate Ma Che Gioia Rivedere I Miei Compagni””. 2020. La Repubblica. https://www.repubblica.it/scuola/2020/10/05/news/gli_studenti_raccontano_il_rientro_in_classe_orari_rigidi_uscite_scaglionate_ma_che_gioia_rivedere_i_miei_compagni_-269504678/?ref=RHPPTP-BH-I269167158-C12-P4-S3.4-T1.

“Face Coverings In Education”. 2020. GOV.UK. https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/face-coverings-in-education/face-coverings-in-education.

Keeling, Tildesley, Atkins, Penman, Southall, Guyver-Fletcher, and Holmes et al. 2020. “The Impact Of School Reopening On The Spread Of COVID-19 In England”. https://www.medrxiv.org/content/10.1101/2020.06.04.20121434v2.

Di Domenico, Pullano, Sabbatini, Boelle, and Colizza. 2020. “Expected Impact Of Reopening Schools After Lockdown On COVID-19 Epidemic In Île-De-France”. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/341334276_Expected_impact_of_reopening_schools_after_lockdown_on_COVID-19_epidemic_in_Ile-de-France/citation/download.

Morris, and Weber-Steinhaus. 2020. “German Schools, Reopened A Month Ago, Have Seen No Major Coronavirus Outbreaks”. https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/europe/covid-schools-germany/2020/09/10/309648a4-eedf-11ea-bd08-1b10132b458f_story.html.

“Education Must Not Fall Victim To COVID-19”. 2020. EEAS – European External Action Service – European Commission. https://eeas.europa.eu/headquarters/headquarters-homepage/86046/education-must-not-fall-victim-covid-19_en.