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Why is Europe still opening schools, in spite of the new closures?

BERLIN – When Chancellor Angela Merkel announced the latest round of restrictions on public life, she designated bars, restaurants, theaters, concert halls, gyms and tattoo parlors as establishments will be forced to close. But missing from Wednesday’s list were schools and day care centers – one of the first to be closed during the spring shutdown.

In France, President Emmanuel Macron on Wednesday also said schools would be exempt from nationwide restrictions coming into effect from Friday. Ireland also allows schools to remain open despite a nationwide lock-in order that took effect earlier this month.

Not everyone is satisfied with this decision, but policymakers are taking additional precautions to reduce risk in schools, from asking for masks to teachers and learners. to regularly illuminate classrooms, break down school yard usage during recess. They say they are applying lessons learned from months of fighting the pandemic and ready to change course if things get worse.

Michael Martin, Ireland’s prime minister, said that although his country no longer avoids the restrictions, despite the adverse impact on the economy, it is important that schools remain open.

“We cannot and will not allow our children and the future of our young people to be another victim of this disease,” Martin said in a national address. “They need their education.”

Around the world, people are concerned that a pandemic is causing lasting harm to the academic and emotional development of an entire generation of children.

Earlier this month, a meeting of Germany’s cultural ministers, who are responsible for coordinating education policy, emphasized the children’s right to an education that they think is best served. classmates, in classrooms. “This must be given the highest priority in making all decisions on restrictive measures that need to be taken,” the Minister said.

In making her announcement, Merkel cites another reason that maintaining access to schools is important, pointing to “serious social consequences” that shut down schools and care centers. Day care was inflicted to families during the closing times of March and April.

“To be clear: Violence against women and children has increased dramatically,” Ms. Merkel said, justifying the government’s decision to discontinue sports activities, cultural events and instead That is to close the restaurant. “It is important to keep in mind the social consequences if we have to interfere in these issues.”

Keeping children at home often makes it difficult for parents – especially mothers – to focus on work.

Medical experts point out many things they still do not know in the spring: with the proper precautions, the rate of coronavirus transmission in schools is relatively low, especially among the youngest students. ; Infected children often have mild symptoms; and measures like wearing a mask, being away from society and circulating the air were more effective than they had anticipated.

But that doesn’t mean that open schools are risk-free. While schools are not known to be a major source of outbreaks in Western Europe and the United States, in Israel, they do not implement social divisions in schools and loosen restrictions on the requirement to wear masks.

Students and staff are still at risk of getting the virus and spreading it, especially to family members who are threatened because they are older or have compromised immune systems. There is no perfect answer, so it is a matter of balancing one group of risks with another.

The European Center for Disease Control and Prevention found that children accounted for less than 5% of total reported coronavirus infections in 27 countries in the European Union and UK, in a published study. in August. The agency found that school closings would “be unable to provide significantly additional protection for the health of children.”

The French requirement for school children to wear masks will expand to include elementary school children, starting at the age of six. Previous regulations only required children 11 years of age and older to wear masks.

However, experts are concerned that wearing a mask alone will not provide enough protection if children continue to gather in the cafeteria during lunchtime, when their masks become open and there is a risk of drips spreading. When they sit together, they risk infection.

Dr. Hélène Rossinot, a French doctor specializing in public health, said: “Now having lunch together in the house with the windows closed is a problem. “We propose that it is possible to be served in the classroom, without them eating together, just eating in class.”

Regularly opening windows to let fresh air into the classroom will also help slow the spread of the virus, but that becomes more difficult as the weather gets colder and wetter, experts say. .

Germany did not introduce any new restrictions in schools on Wednesday. But since schools reopened, the country has asked for many precautions.

Safety planning is required in Germany that includes opening windows completely at least once during school hours and again during recess to ensure ventilation, even when students are covered.

The German public health agency has recommended that schools require people to wear masks when traveling through corridors and that older students should wear them while sitting in class. Social distance requirements include reducing class sizes so children can sit further apart and keeping each student in the same group as others throughout the day, even on the playground.

If an area’s infection rate rises to more than 50 per 100,000 population, it recommends that schools move to a form of combined or dispersed learning. Other governments in Europe, and some in the United States, have adopted similar rules proposing or requiring that an infection reach a certain threshold, schools must close.

Many people are concerned about open schools, but unlike parts of the US, Europe sees little opposition from either parents or teachers. Generally speaking, school attendance is a must and distance learning is not an option.

While many parents feel secure to send their children to school, instead of having to carry the burden of working at home and helping their children study remotely, others worry that their children are facing risks. worth it.

Teachers in France worry that it is not enough to ask elementary school children to wear masks to ensure that everyone is healthy. “We need to reduce the number of students taught by switching to blended teaching,” Guislaine David, general secretary of the SNUipp Teachers Federation in the Seine-Maritime region, told France2 television.

Many teachers in Germany worry that although precautions have been taken, not all schools have followed suit. They fear that the political will to keep children in the classroom will prevail even in areas where health authorities recommend switching to distance learning because of high infection rates.

“We say, yes, let’s keep schools open and adhere to rules of infection,” said Heinz-Peter Meidinger, president of the German Teachers Association. “But don’t keep schools open at any cost.”

Megan Specia contributed reports from London.

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