Parents and teachers fear face masks and other measures not enough to prevent second wave

Tens of millions of pupils, most wearing face masks, have headed back to class in FranceBelgiumPoland and Russia, as schools across Europe cautiously reopened amid spiralling numbers of new coronavirus cases in several countries.

Parents and teachers around the continent have expressed fears that strict physical distancing and hygiene measures such as hand cleansing stations will not be able to prevent a second Covid-19 wave, maybe coinciding with the autumn flu season.

Most governments, however, have concluded that the greater risk is that a generation of children will lose out on crucial face-to-face teaching, and that online lessons delivered to pupils staying at home are not sustainable for most working parents.

About 12.4 million students returned to school for la rentrée in France on Tuesday, with masks mandatory for teachers as well as all pupils over 11. Pupils complained it felt “a bit weird”, while teachers worried about the impact of hiding their faces.

New cases in France, where masks also became compulsory in almost all workplaces from Tuesday, are running at an average of more than 5,000 a day, but the government is determined the crisis will not be allowed to put citizens’ lives on hold.

Although the number of daily new coronavirus cases is approaching levels seen at the height of the pandemic, the number of daily deaths is very small – as it is in other European countries facing rising numbers of cases.

The new term also started in Belgium, which has suffered one of Europe’s highest rates of coronavirus deaths and is recording about 450 new cases a day. Masks are required for all pupils aged 12 and over, and must be kept in a protective case.

Russian pupils returned too, as the country’s case tally surpassed 1 million, with the president, Vladimir Putin, telling students to observe safety rules. Masks are mandatory for teachers in Moscow, which has been harder hit by the virus than other parts of Russia, but not for children.

In Spain  which recorded 8,115 new cases of Covid-19 on Tuesday – classes resume next week. Children over six will have to wear masks, maintain a distance of 1.5 metres and wash their hands at least five times a day.

“I believe fathers, mothers, and the education community can be sure that their sons and daughters, that school employees, will be much safer in schools than in other places,” the prime minister, Pedro Sánchez, said on Tuesday. “But there is no zero risk.”

Masks will also be compulsory in Greece, which on Tuesday delayed reopening its schools by a week until 14 September. Schools in Italy are due to resume the same day with masks and staggered opening and cafeteria times, but three southern regions have already postponed reopening until the end of the month.

According to Unesco, at the height of coronavirus lockdowns in April about 1.5 billion children were affected by school closures. Epidemiologists say the risk of transmission within schools depends on what is happening in the local community as well as safety measures put in place.

“Schools operate in a community, they don’t operate in isolation,” Maria Van Kerkhove of the World Health Organization said. Children and young people make up only 1-2% of Covid-19 cases worldwide and most reported infections in children are mild or asymptomatic.

In Germany, where schools have been reopening since early August, the proportion of coronavirus cases among the under-20s has remained stable. 

New York City said it was delaying sending students back to classrooms by 11 days.

Hungary, meanwhile, was rebuked by the European commission after it decided to exempt tourists visiting from three neighbouring states from a lockdown of its borders that took effect on Tuesday provided they test negative for Covid-19. The EU executive said Hungary’s move to admit visitors from the Czech Republic, Poland and Slovakia but not from other EU member states amounted to discrimination and was illegal.

In an effort to stop the virus spreading, Poland banned direct flights from 44 countries including Spain, Israel and Romania from Wednesday, with the US, Malta, Montenegro, Mexico, Brasil, Argentina and India also on the list.

In further evidence of the devastation the virus has wreaked on the tourism sector, Spain said the number of foreign tourists visiting the country fell by 75% in July from a year earlier, slashing tens of billions of euros off the nation’s income.

Sánchez said his government was particularly concerned about a spike in infections in the region in and around the capital. “We are worried about the state of public health and the evolution of the virus in Madrid,” he said in an interview.

The Madrid region has accounted for about a third of the 96,000 infections recorded in Spain over the past two weeks. 

On Tuesday, Madrid’s city council announced that the capital’s 3,800 parks and green spaces would be closed from 10pm until 6am in an effort to halt the spread of the virus. The measure will come into force immediately. Police in Madrid are also cracking down on botellónes, or street drinking parties, which can facilitate the spread of the virus.

Additional reporting by Sam Jones in Madrid