European experts urge Britain to re-open schools

Patrick Sawer
A social distancing sign is seen as teacher Rhiannon Sharman makes preparations for Watlington Primary School to reopen to children on June 1 - Eddie Keogh/Reuters
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Britain should reopen its schools as the risk is “acceptable” and the benefits far outweigh the “really small” chance of teachers catching coronavirus from children, Dutch and Swedish scientists have urged.

Experts around the world have expressed surprise at the reluctance among some in the UK to get children back into the classroom after weeks of school closures.

Around two thirds of councils in England say they cannot guarantee primaries will reopen on 1 June, casting doubts on government plans to start getting pupils back to school by then (see picture below).

Teaching unions - who have also expressed concerns over whether it is safe for teachers, pupils and parents for classrooms to reopen - have called for local authorities to make the final decision.

And the governments of Scotland and Northern Ireland said on Thursday that a phased return of pupils would not begin until in August.

But in countries where schools have already reopened as lockdowns imposed when Covid-19 began to ravage through their communities are eased, there is surprise at Britain's apparent reluctance.

Dr Patricia Bruijning-Verhagen, associate professor in epidemiology at the University of Utrecht, said teaching unions and education authorities in the UK should take heart from the experience of other countries, such as the Netherlands.

She told The Telegraph: “I would say to them that the risk for teachers is really, really small in terms of getting infected by a student, especially given the measures we have in place.

Dr Bruijning-Verhagen added: “The other way round, that the teacher infects the students is a bigger risk. But then the students when they get infected usually have a mild infection or are asymptomatic. Here in the Netherlands, we see it as an acceptable risk.”

Dutch primary schools opened on May 11, with class sizes halved, parents banned from premises and one-way corridors for children.

As Covid-19 deaths and infections continued to fall, the Netherlands announced on Tuesday that all secondary schools would reopen from June 2, with partial classes and a 1.5m distance between pupils and teachers. On June 8, primary schools will reopen fully, keeping the same hygiene and distancing measures, followed in stages by sixth form colleges and universities.

However the debate is not clear cut. 

Some countries where schools have begun to reopen - such as the Netherlands, Sweden and Denmark - either suffered fewer infections and deaths or are further ahead on the curve of the disease than the UK. 

Other countries which have suffered some of the highest number of Covid-19 deaths, such as Italy, Spain and the USA, are planning to keep most children at home until September for fear any return triggers a surge in infections.

Dr Bruijning-Verhagen, who is researching domestic transmission within families and amongst children of different ages, said there is no evidence reopening primary schools had led to an increase in transmission or cases.

“We are still seeing a very gradual decline in the number of new hospital admissions daily and the overall trend is declining,” she said. “Some Dutch teaching unions were reluctant but the large majority of teachers in the Netherlands were looking forward to starting school again.”

Year 6 teacher Jane Cooper uses a 2 meter length of ruler and pipe to check seat spacings in her classroom as measures are taken to prevent the transmission of coronavirus before the possible reopening of Lostock Hall Primary school in Poynton near Manchester, - Jon Super/AP

Indeed it was in large part pressure from the public rather than scientific opinion which led the Dutch government to close schools as part of its lockdown measures on March 15.

“Because there was a lot of pressure from the public and it was uncertain whether all our mitigation strategies were enough to control the epidemic, at that point they said they would do anything needed to curb it,” she said. “Then the situation improved a lot and more information became available on the role of children internationally and in the Netherlands. Based on that combined evidence and the improved situation, school reopening for primary schools and daycare was one of the first government decisions.”

Fears over the psychological impact of the lockdown on children and the long-term effect a lack of schooling might have on their life-chances made the reopening of schools a priority in the Netherlands.

“The importance of education, and maybe even more the social interactions children have in schools are seen as really important, particularly for socially deprived families,” said Dr Bruijning-Verhagen.

There was similar advice from Sweden, where Annika Linde, the country’s state epidemiologist from 2005 until 2013, said reopening schools did not represent a health risk.

Dr Linde said that the UK should concentrate on protecting parents and teachers in vulnerable high risk groups, but that this could be done while allowing children back in school.

"If you have teachers with a risk factor, then those teachers should not work with kids at school, but they could maybe help with the distance education of kids who have parents with risk factors and who might also need to stay home." 

She added: "If you are a normal healthy parent, of a normal age to be a parent, there is no great risk. I know there are many people in Sweden as well who think 'this is a catastrophe that my child is going to school and I may be infected', but it very seldom is a catastrophe if you're not in a risk group." 

In France nursery and primary schools began to reopen gradually from May 11, with education minister Jean-Michel Blanquer saying this was “safer than staying at home” given not only the higher risk of contagion from adults, but also the “psychological and alimentary risks” for deprived children.

Starting from Monday 18, some 4,000 lower secondary schools have followed suit in “green areas” where infection levels are low, meaning those in Paris and eastern France remain shut.

There was initial resistance, notably from 330 mayors from the Paris area who said the move was “premature”.

In the end, 85 percent of schools in 92 percent of towns reopened, but with only 1.4 million pupils - just 20 percent of the normal intake.

“Common sense won the day. It contrasts with the media fripperies that have stressed parents,” claimed Mr Blanquer.