Virus or no virus, New school year dawns in Europe

A mother and her three children scanned the school supplies in a Paris supermarket, plucking out multicolored fountain pens, crisp notebooks - and plenty of masks. Despite resurgent coronavirus infections, similar scenes are unfolding across Europe as a new school year dawns.

Virus or no virus, European authorities are determined to put children back into classrooms, to narrow the learning gaps between haves and have-nots that deepened during lockdowns - and to get their parents back to work.

Facing a jump in virus cases, authorities in France, Britain, Spain and elsewhere are imposing mask rules, hiring extra teachers and building new desks en masse.

While the U.S. back-to-school saga has been politicized and chaotic, with a hodgepodge of fast-changing rules and backlash against President Donald Trump's insistence on reopening, European governments have faced less of an uproar.

And even though the virus has invaded classrooms in recent days from Berlin to Seoul, and some teachers and parents warn that their schools aren't ready, European leaders from the political left, right and center are sending an unusually consistent message: Even in a pandemic, children are better off in class.

France's prime minister promised Wednesday to "do everything" to get people back to school and work. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson called reopening schools a "moral duty," and his government even threatened to fine parents who keep kids at home.

Italy's health minister abruptly shut down discos this month with one goal in mind - "to reopen schools in September in complete safety." As both a parent and a teacher, Mathieu Maillard has plenty to worry about before French schools reopen Tuesday. The number of virus infections per 100,000 people has grown five-fold in France in the last month.

How will his 5-year-old daughter keep a safe distance from preschool friends she's so excited to see for the first time in six months? How will he gain the trust of his high school students, from one of Marseille's roughest neighborhoods, if he has to police their mask use? But overall, Maillard thinks it's time to go back. School "has to start up again at some point," he says.

"The health risk exists, but the risk of not putting children in school is even bigger." During lockdown, he said, some students never joined his online French literature classes. Some had no place to work, or no computers, just telephones they used to send blurry photos of handwritten work.

"Our students really, really need school," he said. For some of those growing up in an environment plagued with violence and drugs, school "is a place where they can breathe." Unlike the U.S., many European schools reopened at the end of the last term, offering lessons for the fall. Some European schools are planning or considering a hybrid academic year, with some physical classes and some online. But most are aiming for full in-person classes.

(To download our E-paper please click here. The publishers permit sharing of the paper's PDF on WhatsApp and other social media platforms.)

Free Press Journal