Italy is one of the most cautious countries in Europe, requiring all teachers and other school employees to show proof of vaccination, recovery from Covid-19 or frequent negative tests  (Photo: Bloomberg)

Return to school tests Europe’s containment of Covid-19

The continent’s return to school, which began in August and will mostly be completed by next week, will offer a glimpse of which national strategies work and which don’t, as different European countries try a variety of approaches to render the classroom safe.

Italy is one of the most cautious countries in Europe, requiring all teachers and other school employees to show proof of vaccination, recovery from Covid-19 or frequent negative tests. Masks are obligatory for almost everyone who enters a school.

By contrast, the U.K.—and especially its most populous part, England—has broadly returned to pre-Covid-19 normality. Schools aren’t requiring masks or vaccinations, and earlier tactics against infection, such as quarantine bubbles, have been ditched.

Other major European countries, such as France, Germany and Spain, fall in between, with social distancing rules and mask wearing rules in schools but no vaccine requirements for staff.

Most of Europe has made steady progress in containing the pandemic in recent months, as vaccination rates have surpassed those in the U.S.—including in continental countries where the vaccination campaign got off to a slow start last winter but has since gathered pace. In most European countries, infection, hospitalization and death rates from Covid-19 are well below those in the U.S.

Health experts warn, however, that the mass return to schools and offices after August, coupled with cooler fall weather and socializing indoors, could reverse some of Europe’s progress.

In the U.S., Covid-19 infection rates have been rising in states where schools opened earliest. But in many cases, the increases have been accompanied by statewide vaccination rates below the national average and well below those in most of Europe.

In Mississippi, infections in schools have sent tens of thousands of students into quarantine since the reopening in early August. But with 40% of its population fully vaccinated, the state lags behind the 53% overall level in the U.S. In the U.K., 65% of the total population is now fully vaccinated, and 62% in Italy.

That has given European leaders and public-health experts reason to hope their return to school will go more smoothly than in some parts of the U.S. European officials and public-health experts also point to the mask mandates in many countries and the continued use of social distancing in schools.

Europe wants to avoid a repeat of last year, when a steep drop in infections during the summer and a general feeling among many that the virus had been defeated ran into the reality of a deadly resurgence of the pandemic by late fall.

“The high vaccination rate makes me moderately confident things will go better this school year than last year, but it very much depends on what happens with the variants,” said Claudio Zanon, a retired surgeon who is the scientific director of Motore Sanità, an organization that promotes scientific research.

Most of Italy’s regions will begin opening their schools on Sept. 13. All staff at schools are required to have the European Union’s digital Covid certificate, which shows the holder has been vaccinated, has freshly tested negative for the virus, or has recovered from Covid-19 in the past six months. About 90% of school staff have been vaccinated in Italy. Opponents of the green pass have organized protests, but have struggled to gain much support. In the Lombardy region, where Milan is the capital, fewer than 100 workers out of almost 300,000 reported to school earlier this month without the green pass, according to regional officials.

Mr. Zanon, who until last year was the medical director of a hospital in Como in Italy’s north, said he worries about the potential transmission of the virus on public transportation to and from school and that he would make the vaccine obligatory for students.

England, where the new school term began this week without most of the control measures that were in place during previous phases of the pandemic, is an outlier in Europe. Students and teachers aren’t required to wear masks. Children are no longer grouped into bubbles to limit contact between classes. Labor unions representing teachers have criticized the government’s approach as too relaxed.

The Conservative government of Prime Minister Boris Johnson ditched almost all legally compulsory pandemic measures in England in July, telling people they must learn to live with the virus now that vaccines were preventing thousands of hospitalizations and deaths. U.K. authorities have asked schools to maintain some low-level control measures such as enhanced cleaning regimes and keeping classrooms ventilated. They are also planning frequent rapid testing of older schoolchildren to spot infections and smother new outbreaks.

Last week, a government advisory panel of scientists recommended against vaccinating healthy children aged 12 to 15 because the benefits were too limited, relative to the low risk of falling seriously ill with Covid-19. Government officials are nonetheless considering whether to offer younger teenagers shots to raise the overall vaccination rate and limit the risk of disruptions to education.

The U.K.’s other regions, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, set their own public-health measures and have broadly moved in the same direction as England. But in Scotland, where school began in mid-August, authorities have recommended that schools maintain mask wearing, staggered start times and other control measures for at least the first six weeks of term, when new guidance is due to be issued.

Scotland’s seven-day average of new daily cases was 6,400 on Monday, four times the level before the school restart. But the rate of increase has been slowing since late August, suggesting the latest surge in cases may be petering out. Hospital admissions in Scotland, which has fully vaccinated 68% of its population, peaked at 200 a day in January. They are currently averaging less than half that.

Paul Hunter, a professor of medicine at the University of East Anglia, said he expected the reopening of schools to play some role in pushing up caseloads in the U.K., but so will greater social contacts between adults now that most restrictions have been lifted. He expects another difficult winter ahead but thinks vaccines will prevent another big burst of severe illness and death.

“I think we’re past the worst,” he said.

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