(Bloomberg Opinion) — Kids across the U.K. and Europe have been masking up and heading back to school. For many it’s been a long time coming, and sorely needed, but understandably many carers and teachers are worried.
Evidence suggests school reopenings haven’t been the primary cause of flare-ups in local Covid-19 cases. The coming months will nevertheless bring some challenges.
At first glance, Norway’s experience indicates a return to the classroom isn’t necessarily accompanied by a significant uptick in infections. Children there returned to school at the end of April, with strict new hygiene rules and smaller classes, before breaking up for the summer holidays two months later. The Nordic country managed to tame the pandemic in that period with travel restrictions, quarantine requirements and caps on private gatherings.
More recently, as fall term began, Norway has seen a rise in Covid-19 infections, but one driven by young adults. So far this month, the most common presumed places of infection, according to Norway’s contact tracers, are households, workplaces, universities and private events such as weddings.
In this back-to-school season, there has been an increase in infections elsewhere too, but, again, other factors are being blamed.
Take Scotland. Some virus clusters emerged in Glasgow after the term began in August. The government has said these were due to community transmission rather than the virus spreading in schools. After a cluster involving students from a couple of high schools in northern Glasgow and Lanarkshire, the country’s national clinical director told BBC Radio Scotland that house parties were a real concern and more needed to be done to encourage youngsters to follow social-distancing measures even in private.
In Germany, while some schools or classes have closed when a case of Covid was declared, an increase in infections has mainly been linked to people returning from vacations — as many as 40% of recent cases are thought to have been transmitted abroad. The others have mostly been traced to family gatherings and private events.
The manner in which schools open, and other measures across society, appear relevant. Virologist Christian Drosten believes the lack of school-based Covid clusters in Germany is more down to there being relatively little virus transmission happening in the country, thanks to an early response and effective testing and tracing. If so, keeping schools open may be more challenging in countries where the infection rate is rising such as Spain, Italy and France.
In May, Israel inflamed its just-tamed epidemic by racing to open classrooms before there were proper social-distancing measures in place and without a robust contact-tracing system. By contrast, Denmark has been seen as a model for implementing reduced class sizes, near-hourly hand-washing and a blend of online and on-site learning to avoid overcrowding.
Of course, it’s still early in the school year, and Europe’s winter is coming. Colder, wetter weather will force school windows shut. And discipline around social distancing could become harder to maintain the longer it’s required.
Devi Sridhar, a professor at the University of Edinburgh, told Sky News that Scotland’s testing system has been “having to race to catch up with the demand of all the children coming home with coughs and colds and fevers.”
Things will become even more challenging as we enter flu season. Countries clearly have a challenge to stay on top of the situation. But keeping schools open doesn’t have to reignite the flames of a coronavirus epidemic.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Lara Williams manages Bloomberg Opinion’s social media channels.
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