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In Europe, the challenge of keeping schools open despite the Omicron variant

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As in France, the majority of European countries have decided to maintain face-to-face lessons at the start of the Christmas holidays despite the increase in contamination linked to the Omicron variant.

In France, the teaching staff is not losing its temper. Despite the rapidity of Covid-19 contamination linked to the Omicron variant, students and teachers returned to schools on January 3, 2022. But for ten days, between repeated class closings, identification of contact cases and tests galore, the testimonies of exasperated professors multiply, denouncing “a chaos” and a health protocol “totally unsuitable”.

However, the majority of European countries, like France, have chosen to keep their schools open. The story is always the same: it is out of the question to relive the vast closure of schools in the spring of 2020.

“Face-to-face education is a top priority,” UK Secretary of State for Education Nadhim Zahawi pleaded in a letter to teachers on January 2.

“The government has as a priority that the school is open face-to-face”, for his part assured at a press conference the head of the Italian government, Mario Draghi, Monday January 10.

“Face-to-face education is a question of equal opportunities. We must do everything to ensure that schools remain open”, she also tweeted German Education Minister Bettina Stark-Watzinger.

Extended school holidays

In December, the Netherlands and Belgium were an exception, however, by closing schools a week before the official end-of-year vacation date. For its part, Denmark, which was one of the first countries in Europe to announce the closure of schools, colleges and high schools, from March 11, 2020, also declared the closure of schools three to seven days before the holidays, but the courses were continued at a distance.

Schoolchildren, college and high school students from the three countries all returned to school benches in early January.

Focus on testing

In France, the government had already generalized the wearing of masks for students. At the start of the school year, she decided to bet everything on the tests. Children in elementary school must perform self-tests after detecting a case of Covid-19 in their classroom, but without isolating themselves at home. In middle and high school, when a case is identified in a class, students must perform an antigen test, or PCR as soon as they have been notified. They can only come back to class if the result is negative. Classes close after three or more positive cases.

Problem of this health protocol: a multiplication of tests leading to endless queues in front of pharmacies and multiple class closures – there were 10,000 on Tuesday, January 11. Despite a new reduction in measures, the third since the start of the school year, discontent persists among teachers. Thursday, January 13, all the national public education federations are calling for a national strike. A mobilization that promises to be historic and a sign of the generalized fed up of the educational community.

Other countries have opted for this “testing” strategy. In Denmark, pupils and staff must be tested twice a week. In Belgium, the authorities recommend that students take a self-test once a week, details the RTBF.

Germany and Austria had pioneered school testing. The latter have been at the center of health protocols since spring 2021. And the measure has been rather well adopted. But the procedure is quite different: from primary school, children take their tests themselves at school, with their teacher. It is only if the result is positive that an antigen test followed by a PCR test is carried out. The two countries have also generalized saliva tests at school, still absent in France because they are considered too expensive.

In Italy, a complex health protocol

In Italy, it is a re-entry under tension which took place Monday, January 10. Like France, the country has to deal with the massive absences of teachers. According to the Italian Minister of Education, around 6% of the staff are already missing because they were positive or contact cases.

In a column relayed by the daily Corriere della Sera, more than 2,000 school directors thus called for postponing the start of the school year. “We do not know how we will be able to welcome and supervise the children. Rather than face a situation which will cause an interruption of the lessons and an ineffectiveness in the training, it would be better to suspend the face-to-face lessons for two weeks”, wrote- they.

The government of Mario Draghi has also opted for a particularly complex health protocol. In kindergarten, if a student is positive for Covid-19, this immediately results in the closure of his class. On the other hand, in primary, if a pupil is positive, the class does not close, but there is a massive screening of all the pupils. In middle and high school, classes are held face-to-face up to two cases of Covid-19 in the classroom, but students must wear an FFP2 mask. Distance education passes after the third case.

CO sensors2 UK

In the United Kingdom, while January 2021 was marked by new confinement, this time, students are back to school. They must now wear the mask and take a test twice a week.

While the country is also facing a staff shortage, the Secretary of State for Education, Nadhim Zahawi, has also asked teachers who have left the profession or retirees to return to service. to replace the many sick people. He also promised some 300,000 carbon dioxide sensors and 7,000 air purifiers in schools to better ventilate the rooms.

But across the Channel too, the teaching staff is scolding: in a letter to Prime Minister Boris Johnson, several unions are calling for more resources to fight effectively against the virus, deeming these measures insufficient.

Faced with this mess, all governments agree on one point: it is necessary to accelerate the vaccination of children, considered one of the best tools to guarantee the sustainability of education.

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