School’s back. But for some countries, so is the coronavirus.


LONDON — Kids normally dread it while their parents can’t wait.

But as summer draws to a close and the specter of the coronavirus continues to loom, governments around the world are grappling with how best to get students back into the classroom for the fall term.

While the United Nations warned Wednesday of a “global education emergency” if kids could not return to school after months of lockdowns, teachers are concerned about safety and a lack of contingency planning as COVID-19 cases continue to rise.

“We do have the impression that German politicians are under pressure to reopen schools without knowing how to best do it,” Heinz-Peter Meidinger, the head of the German Teachers’ Association, told NBC News earlier this month.

Educators were nervous that German schools have been reopening at full capacity, added Meidinger, a principal of a school in the southern state of Bavaria.

At least 41 schools in the capital, Berlin, have reported coronavirus cases among staff and students since they reopened earlier this month.

Image: Students of the eleventh grade sit with face masks in a classroom of the Phoenix high school in Dortmund, western Germany (Ina Fassbender / AFP – Getty Images)

While deaths and infections from the coronavirus in the country have been substantially lower than some of its European neighbors, it is now facing a spike in infections with approximately 1,500 new cases being reported daily, the highest since April.

Germany has a federal system akin to the U.S., which means rules on things like mask-wearing vary from state to state.

But unlike the U.S., where school plans vary widely and most of the largest urban districts will start the year remotely after a summer surge in cases, Germany has prioritized keeping schools open, while barring the public from sports events and concerts.

“Children should not become the losers of the pandemic,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel said Friday.

The German Teachers’ Association has called for a differentiation between schooling for younger children up to the age of 10 who they say should be taught in larger groups than the older students, “who can use modern technology, digital tools for home schooling,” Meidinger said.

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Evidence from a large study conducted in South Korea published in July found that children under 10 transmit the virus much less often than adults do, but that older children, aged 10 to 19, spread the virus at least as much as adults.

Image: Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson poses with his arms out-stretched in a classroom as he visits St Joseph’s Catholic Primary School in Upminster, east London (Lucy Young / AFP – Getty Images)

In the U.K., where the government has focused on a strategy of locking down districts with high infection rates, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said students in those areas in England would need to wear face coverings. Headteachers would have the final say in areas with fewer cases, he said.

In Scotland, where education is governed by its own parliament, all students over the age 12 are required to wear masks in communal areas when moving between classes.

Britain has been severely impacted by the pandemic, with over 40,000 deaths and a bigger economic hit than many of its neighbors. While avoiding some of the sharp rises seen in other European countries, it has reported the highest number of new cases since the spring.

Jerry Glazier, a spokesperson for the National Education Union, the U.K.’s largest labor union for teachers, said his colleagues were “concerned about mental health issues” of children and remained committed to keeping schools open as long as possible.

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If schools did have to close again, Glazier said teachers were worried about the education of an estimated “700,000 kids who haven’t got the level of internet access or enough technology in the household.” The government had been slow to deliver on a promise to provide extra laptops to children in lockdown before the summer break, he added.

Elsewhere in Europe, France’s 12.9 million students will return Tuesday despite a sharp increase in infections in recent weeks. All teachers, middle school and high school students will have to wear masks all day, and schools will have one-way corridors and limited gatherings.

Amid new infections, increasing anxiety from parents and criticism from teachers unions, Spanish officials are adapting their plans before schools start reopening Friday. An additional 11,000 teachers are being hired and makeshift classrooms built in schoolyards to create “bubbles” of students who are allowed to mix with each other but not with outsiders.

In China, where the virus originated, 208 million Chinese students, or roughly 75 percent of the country’s total student population, have returned to class, many on some type of staggered class schedule. The rest are expected to return by Tuesday.

Image: A student gets body temperature measured when returning for classes at Seryun Elementary School in Seoul, South Korea (Lee Sang-ho/Xinhua / Getty Images file)

But in neighboring South Korea — often held up as an example for how to successfully contain the coronavirus — plans for the new semester have been thrown into chaos after fears of a second wave swept the nation.

Over 400 new cases were recorded on Thursday — the highest since March — after a week of new cases in the triple figures.

As a result, elementary, middle and high school students in the greater Seoul area have once again been instructed to attend classes online until Sept. 11.

Sixth grade teacher Sam K. Yi said his school was “working hard to reach a point where we alternate between online and offline in a blended learning environment.”

Lee Sang-soo, the national curriculum policy bureau director-general at South Korea’s Education Ministry, said earlier this month that schools will offer additional one-on-one mentoring programs for students having a harder time adjusting to more online classes.

But he stressed that “the health and safety of our students has to come first.”

Luke Denne reported from London, Grace Moon from Seoul and Andy Eckardt from Mainz.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.


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