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Despite Coronavirus Surge, European Schools Stay Open

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Students studied on the street in Turin after schools were closed by the government because of rising Covid-19 infections.

Students studied on the street in Turin after schools were closed by the government because of rising Covid-19 infections.

Photo: alessandro di marco/Shutterstock

While schools in some U.S. states are going back to remote learning, European countries are mostly persevering with open schools despite high coronavirus infection rates, believing—for now—that the cost to children of closing classrooms outweighs the health risks.

In parts of the U.S., many schools that shut down in the spring never reopened, and others are closing again. New York City is also poised to close schools if cases continue to rise.

By contrast, by the end of September schools across Europe had reopened, and most governments are determined to keep it that way—even though the continent is grappling with a powerful second wave of infections.

Part of the reason is that it is unclear how effective closing schools really is, with scientific studies reaching different conclusions about how important students and teachers are in driving contagion. Meanwhile, policy makers have concluded that the social damage caused by prolonged school closures was too much to bear, particularly for less-privileged families with working parents.

French Education Minister Jean-Michel Blanquer pushed for schools to reopen quickly at the end of the lockdown in the spring, saying the social and economic cost of missing class was too high. When France went into a nationwide lockdown in late October, with all nonessential businesses forced to shut, the government kept schools open.

Mr. Blanquer told France’s Parliament this week that he was ready to enforce new health measures in schools if needed. “But my goal is to keep schools open as much as possible, because our children have the right to an education,” he said.

It isn’t just France. While businesses including bars and restaurants shut down several weeks ago in England, Germany and elsewhere in Europe, schools have remained open.

The continent is once again at the center of the pandemic, with more thanb 206,000 daily infections detected on average over the past week in the European Union, or about 460 cases per million people on average. The U.S. by comparison is averaging about 135,000 recorded cases a day, or 408 per million.

In France, Italy, Spain and other European countries, new measures to contain the spread of the virus include obligatory wearing of face masks in classrooms for children over the age of six.

The use of face masks is also recommended for older students in the U.K. and in parts of Germany with high infection rates. Students are told to wash their hands frequently, and classroom windows are often left open to air out potential virus particles.

Face masks are recommended for older students in parts of Germany with high infection rates. A high school in Mainz, western Germany, on Nov. 12.

Face masks are recommended for older students in parts of Germany with high infection rates. A high school in Mainz, western Germany, on Nov. 12.

Photo: daniel roland/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

Jennifer Dowd, a professor of demography and population health at the University of Oxford, says schools appear to mirror, rather than amplify, infections within communities. A U.K. survey that randomly samples the population on a weekly basis recently found that infection rates among young children were similar—not higher—than that of adults.

“There is increasing evidence that younger kids, especially under 10, may not spread Covid-19 as efficiently as older people. That at least lends some credence to the idea that keeping them open may be worth the risk,” Ms. Dowd said. “In the U.S. there is much more heterogeneity. Europe is at least trying to prioritize education, over things like restaurants or bars.”

Across Europe, in-person lessons are still the norm, with students, classes or sometimes whole schools self-isolating only in the event of confirmed cases.

There are exceptions. Italy and Greece earlier this month ordered all high schools to revert to remote learning. In parts of Italy considered at higher risk, younger children are now at home, too.

The move to remote learning in the Naples area, where schools have been shut for a month, was opposed by many parents and health experts. “The closure of schools hurts children’s educational and social development, causing big cultural gaps particularly among children from poorer socioeconomic backgrounds,” pediatricians in the Naples area said an open letter.

Pressure to reduce school capacity is growing elsewhere, too. In France, which is confronting Europe’s biggest outbreak, the government last week said high-school students are allowed to follow up to 50% of their lessons online.

Germany’s Robert Koch Institute, the country’s main disease-prevention agency, recommends that in-person teaching should be reduced by half if local infections rise above 500 cases per million.

In the U.S., cities including Philadelphia and Boston kept schools shut after the summer break. Detroit and Cincinnati are among those returning to remote learning, and New York City is likely to follow.

Mayor Bill de Blasio urged parents to prepare for a public-school shutdown by Monday, as the share of people testing positive for the coronavirus over a seven-day average is nearing 3%, a threshold that indicates many cases remain undetected. The city’s positivity rate is 2.83%.

European countries are reaching far higher positivity rates: 7.5% in the U.K., 13% in Spain and about 20% in France. Transmissions within households and families have been the biggest drivers of infections, authorities say, although it is becoming increasingly difficult for health agencies to effectively trace and test virus carriers because the virus has spread so quickly in recent weeks.

As cases increased across Europe, so have school outbreaks. For instance, more than a fifth of the U.K.’s 874 detected coronavirus outbreaks in the week through Nov. 8 occurred in education settings.

In France, thousands of teachers across France went on strike Tuesday, saying it is impossible to enforce social distancing among pupils. Classes are too big, they say, and schools lack staff and equipment such as individual tables.

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“We are left to our own devices,” said Frédéric Allègre, a high-school teacher in Soissons, a small French town on the Aisne River, about 60 miles northeast of Paris. “Teachers are worried.”

A study recently published in the medical journal The Lancet, based on data from more than 130 countries, estimated that closing schools could decrease community infections by 15% over a month. But the study didn’t account for precautions such as social distancing in classrooms, which could limit infections in schools without shutting them down.

On the other hand, a study by Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya looked at the effect of school reopenings in different Spanish regions and found no obvious pattern. Nowhere was the reopening of schools linked to a surge in cases, says Sergio Alonso Muñoz, a co-author of the working paper, which was released last month.

“We expected to find a lot of cases in schools, but we didn’t find as many as we thought,” he said. “With the reopening of schools there wasn’t an explosive increase in cases.”

Write to Margherita Stancati at margherita.stancati@wsj.com and Noemie Bisserbe at noemie.bisserbe@wsj.com

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