Children are seen social distancing within a school in France – @lioneltop/Twitter
Around the world school gates are reopening after months of lockdown which left playgrounds empty and classrooms forlorn.
But where there were once excited shouts as children arrived for a new day, there are now instructions to keep your distance and regularly wash your hands.
As children return to class in countries that have begun to ease their lockdown measures, new school regimes have been introduced to minimise the risk of renewed infections leading to a second wave of Covid-19.
How countries manage the return of pupils is being watched closely in Britain, where the Government has asked primary schools to reopen on June 1 for reception, Year 1 and Year 6.
Parisian nursery teacher Dominique Sicard has been pouring over a 57-page protocol from the French education ministry on how to respect social distancing with a class of five-year olds and is categorical.
“If the people who govern us think we can respect all this to the letter, there’s no point in re-opening at all,” said the 53-year-old.
“I’ve already warned parents that while children will have a table and chair with their name on, it is impossible for them to remain at that desk all day. Most are happy with it.”
As France slowly re-emerges from two months of confinement, the Ecole des Trois Bornes in Paris is one of tens of thousands of the country’s nursery and primary schools opening its doors to around 1.5 million pupils this week, roughly a quarter of the total.
While nursery and primary schools in France’s “green”low-infection areas began classes on Tuesday, those in Paris – deep red given ongoing contagion levels – only start widening intake beyond the offspring of essential critical workers on Thursday.
Among a long list of sanitary measures, teachers must wear face masks and the children’s chairs be separated to avoid spreading the disease.
One Ms Sicard and colleagues have already written off is to coop children inside a metre-square enclosure in the playground far from their classmates.
“It’s inhuman and impossible. Five-year-olds need to be able to run around and let off steam otherwise they lose the plot,” she said.
Pupils are not supposed to touch teachers and vice versa. “But what about a child that hurts itself and requires treatment, can’t hang its coat up or goes to the toilet and can’t do its trousers up?,” she asked.
“We can’t turn them into adults just because the context dictates they should act as adults. If they see their friends, they’ll want to go and play with them,” she said.
That said, she said many of the rules will be applied, including disinfecting toys and surfaces.
Despite her reservations, she said she approved of France re-opening schools in particular out of “solidarity for families whose parents have to work”.
Paris’ town hall expects 600 of its 652 primary and nursery schools to open this week to welcome a quarter of its 130,000 pupils. Nation-wide, most will re-open but classes will be small – a maximum of 10 in nursery schools and 15 in elementary schools.
“There are more risks in staying home than going to school,” insisted education minister Jean-Michel Blanquer.
The return to school is on a voluntary basis and the vast majority of children remain at home. Teachers are supposed to juggle with real and remote teaching.
Secondary school children are not due back until May 25.
Unions have criticised the decision to reopen the schools calling it “premature” and pointing out that the government overruled its scientific committee’s advice to keep them shut until September, like the UK.
“Why have we started with the youngest children to end the lockdown when we know they’ll be the hardest ones to make apply protective measures?” said Francette Popineau, chief of the primary school union, on FranceInfo radio.
Parents have mixed feelings.
A pupil wearing a facemask attends a class at the private school Institut Sainte Genevieve in Paris – AFP
Bruno Timsit, 41, is keeping his three children away from nursery, primary and secondary school for now.
“It wasn’t an easy decision but we decided there is no rush. We weren’t sure how schools were going to cope and were a bit worried about the kids contaminating each other and us,” he said.
“I also with the idea of leaving it to parents to decide whether to take risk of sending they kids back to school. The government should have taken responsibility and either called everyone back or no.”
However, Tarek Elachkar, 45, said he “decided to trust the official guidelines”. His nine-year old daughter Olivia will return to primary school on Thursday.
“She misses school. We tried to tell her it would be different but she said she was happy to go back. That nailed it for us,” he said.
Nursery headmistress Pascale Chartier said she was not worried about infections. “We have been looking after children of high-risk health workers throughout the confinement period and have had no infections of teachers or pupils,” she said. Studies suggests transmission from children under 10 is very low.
“We are being careful but we are confident it will be alright,” she said.
Dutch parents have been instructed to ‘kiss and go’ at the school gates, as primary children in the Netherlands began a staggered return this week.
It would be normal for parents in primary school to take their kids into the classroom in the morning. But most schools are now asking parents to drop their children at the school gates or at the doors and stay out of the premises to minimise the risk of spreading infection.
Audrey Verschuren, principal of the Leonardo Da Vinci school in Amsterdam, which admits half its children in the morning and half in the afternoon, said: “The parents have had to get used to it. It’s a bit nerve-wracking for them to see their four-year-old child who has been with us for just two months walk into the classroom on their own! But children get used to new situations quickly and always find the fun side.”
Each school has come up with its own solution to keep the required 1.5m distance between staff and pupils.
Ribbons mark out one-way routes and there are separate entrances for different age groups.
Older or vulnerable teachers do not have to return to work, while some schools have taped off a ‘safe area’ for teachers at the front of the class, while children sit at a greater distance at their desks and play outside in their half-class groups.
Some parents are still anxious. At the British School of Amsterdam a third have kept their children at home.
But Paul Morgan, the schools’ Principal, told The Telegraph of the joy of welcoming back those who came.
“It has been so heart-warming to see the children back in school: smiling and enjoying seeing their teachers and friends again,” he said.
Denmark pioneered the start of the European return to school from May 4 by keeping its primary school children in small groups and with as little contact with others as possible.
These micro-groups arrive at a separate time, eat lunch separately, have their own zones in the playground and are taught by one teacher.
Dom Maher, head of the international section of St Josef’s school in Roskilde, on the Danish island of Zealand, said: “There was anxiety in the community. A large percentage of parents were in two minds.”
But the Danish experiment appears to have been a success, so much so that the insistence on children washing their hands frequently has led to problems with skin irritation and eczema.
Schools began to reopen in Germany last month, but parents and teachers have voiced frustration with measures to contain the virus.
Most schools have reduced class sizes so social distancing can be observed, but many can only achieve this by dividing classes and teaching children on alternate days.
“It’s an absolute farce,” one parent in Berlin said, complaining that her child will only get four days of lessons before the summer holidays under the new timetable.
Many parents say employers expect them to be able come back to work because the schools are open and don’t realise they’re still stuck taking care of their children three days a week.
Pupils are expected to wear facemasks while entering and leaving but most schools allow them to be removed in the classroom.
One school in a remote part of north-eastern Germany has won plaudits for coming up with an alternative solution.
Henry Tesch, headmaster of the Carolinum School in Neutsrelitz, says dividing classes and teaching on alternate days isn’t an option because of the long distances his pupils have to travel, with some travelling as far as 40 miles each way.
So the school is offering coronavirus tests to pupils twice a week, in partnership with a local company.
Switzerland has taken a radical approach to reopening schools because its government is convinced children are not at risk from the virus.
Swiss authorities recently announced it was safe for grandparents to hug their grandchildren and they have taken the same attitude to reopening schools.
“Young children very rarely get infected and transmit the virus to others even less,” Alain Berset, the Swiss interior minister said.
Primary and secondary schools were allowed to reopen this week and in most regions they are teaching full classes as usual.
Switzerland has begun its second phase of reopening – FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP via Getty Images
A notable exception is Zurich, where classes have been divided in two to prevent overcrowding.
Regions have been given considerable autonomy in deciding what measures to take.
Authorities in Basel said dividing classes “would not solve the problem of childcare for families and would pose additional challenges for teachers”.
But there has been resistance to the government advice in areas which have been harder hit by the virus.
In Taiwan, which has avoided a lockdown due to its successful pandemic strategy, schools were closed for the month of February, but have since functioned in a relatively normal fashion with some social distancing restrictions.
Children have had to wear masks in disinfected classrooms, sit at least 70cm apart and wash their hands after every break. School assemblies were restricted and parents were not permitted to attend sports days but activities like swimming lessons have now resumed.
Fergus Meiklejohn, a British filmmaker who lives in Taipei with his wife and two primary school age daughters, said: “For us parents we are happy that the school and government are doing their best. If we had the infection rates currently in the UK, we’d still be scared kids would bring infection back to the family even with these precautions.”.
Sean Kramer, an American teacher based in Taiwan, said: “Kids will be kids and interact with each other, their lives haven’t changed that much. But the school won’t take any chances if a student has a temperature. I’ve had noticeably more absences in my classes this semester.”
Teachers wearing face masks line up to receive nucleic acid testing in China’s Shanxi province – Zhang Yuan/China News Service via Getty ImagesChina
China – where the coronavirus pandemic began – has been reopening its schools cautiously and in phases, running classes with a maximum of 20 pupils to allow children to sit a safe distance from each other. Some schools are even using video calls so that teachers can instruct classes from a separate room.
Students now have shorter lessons and have been told to avoid public transport to and from school.
In Hangzhou, children at one elementary school made their own bespoke “social-distancing” hats with metre-long wings to remind them to help them avoid getting too close to each other.
In Greece, students in the final year of high school returned to school on Monday, with all other high school students, as well as middle school pupils, going back next week.
Each class is limited to 15 to ensure social distancing regulations and break times will be staggered so classes.
Schools are livestreaming classes so that they can rotate student attendance and keep classrooms at 50 per cent capacity or below.
That decision has been criticised by a national teachers’ union, which says it could infringe on children’s privacy rights.
By swiftly implementing a national lockdown, Greece managed to contain its coronavirus outbreak. So far the death toll is just 151 – compared with more than 30,000 in nearby Italy. Around 2,700 people have been infected.
Greek teachers protest against government plans to allow remote teaching with use of a camera – AP Photo/Petros GiannakourisAustria
Austria was one of the first countries in Europe to lift its lockdown but it is taking a cautious approach to reopening schools.
Classes resumed on May 4 for those facing school leaving exams, but for others they do not resume until May 18. Sixth formers who do not have exams will have to wait until June 3.
Austria has formalised the practice of dividing classes to limit numbers with a clear and simple system to be used across the country.
All classes will be divided in two, with one half attending lessons from Monday to Wednesday, and the other on Thursday and Friday. Each week the two groups will swap over, so all children get the same number of lessons.
Austria has also taken steps to get round the problem of childcare for parents returning to work.
On the days they do not have lessons children will be able to study under supervision in school gyms, if parents wish.
Facemasks will be compulsory while moving around the school but not in classrooms. Schools will be issued with “emergency masks” for pupils who forget to bring theirs.