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EU countries strive to reopen schools as debates rage over Covid-19 safety

Across Europe, governments are opting to reopen schools after the Christmas holidays as Covid-19 infections hit new records and pile pressure on hospitals. Debates were rife over how to balance the value of education, the protection of children’s health and control of the virus.

Amid tense public anticipation, the Netherlands and Greece were among the countries to announce this week that schools would reopen on Monday as planned.

Italy also opted not to extend the school holidays, and there was intense focus as the government met to consider new guidance with classes due back from Friday. High-filtering FFP2 masks are widely obligatory in Italy and are to be distributed to schools from Monday, while prices have been fixed in pharmacies at 75 cent a mask.

Masks are mandatory at all times for staff and pupils in Austria, with FFP2s obligatory for over-16s. Tests must take place at school three times a week, with at least one of them a PCR test.

There is a strong focus on ventilation in Belgium, where schools have been given funding for carbon dioxide monitors , as well as for self-tests.

“Maximum airflow and ventilation remain one of the most important precautions,” reads the advice of regional Flemish authorities, while Wallonia stipulates that schools must “keep windows ajar during lessons and open them fully during breaks”. All children and staff must wear masks at all times in Wallonia, while classes are suspended if two pupils test positive in a week.

In Spain, where some teachers’ unions had threatened protests if schools did not reopen, in-person teaching resumes fully on Monday with obligatory face masks for all aged six and up.

One of the most controversial issues was 10-day quarantines for entire classes if one positive case was found, but the government has predicted 90 per cent of five- to 11-year-olds will have received a vaccine by the end of the month, reducing isolation requirements.

In France, there was fierce criticism of the government as new rules for schools were released just hours before pupils were due to return to the classroom. With Covid-19 infections hitting eye-watering new records day to day, teachers unions threatened to strike over a failure to provide them with surgical or FFP2 masks.

A letter from heath experts to health minister Olivier Véran appealed for a delayed starting date and increased ventilation measures, but the government insisted that new contact isolation rules distinguishing between vaccinated and unvaccinated would protect staff and students.

“The tidal wave has indeed arrived, it’s enormous, but we will not give in to panic,” Véran told parliament.

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