For children at Kampen school in Oslo, going back to class means spending more time in the park.
Norway reopened many of its schools at the end of April, making the country an experiment in how to implement social distancing in the classroom.
The younger age groups at Kampen spend only half their days in the school buildings, with the other half at a local park where they do both learning and playing. It is even more of a juggling act for the top three years, aged 11 to 13. Split into four groups, they do two days each week in the classroom and two days either outside or home schooling. On Fridays, everyone works from home.
Hanne Hauge, the school head, admits she has had to shorten the teaching day and bring in extra staff to manage the additional workload caused by cutting class sizes in half.
But the measures have built confidence: almost all of the children have been attending. “A lot of them are really enthusiastic to be back,” she says. “At that age it’s a terrible thing to be cut off from your friends.”
Kampen is at the forefront of one of the most sensitive and complex issues that governments in Europe and the US face as they tentatively ease restrictions after their coronavirus lockdowns.
So far, only a few have taken the plunge of reopening schools. Norway and Denmark returned last month, and France has restarted some schools this week. Hong Kong, with its low infection rate and only four deaths, will only open secondary schools to some age groups later this month. Britain’s prime minister, Boris Johnson, has said that England’s primary schools would start to open some time in June.
The economic impact of reopening schools could be powerful. When they are shut, parents find it hard to work, particularly the main caregivers for dependent children. That is about 16 per cent of the workforce, a 2008 British study found.
But if reopening schools might help get things moving, not everyone is eager. Some parents are anxious about sending their children back. Teachers are worried too. In Britain, the National Education Union, the biggest trade union for teachers, described the government’s plans as “reckless” and “entirely premature”, citing the country’s high coronavirus infection rate and limited testing infrastructure. Without staff in the classrooms, schools cannot function.
In the US, the politics around reopening schools have become particularly contentious. Anthony Fauci, the leading infectious disease scientist and member of the White House coronavirus task force, told a Senate committee hearing this week that “we better be careful” about sending children back to school. “I am very careful, and hopefully humble, in knowing that I don’t know everything about this disease,” he said.
President Donald Trump responded that this answer was “not acceptable”. “They should open the schools, absolutely,” he told Fox, insisting the virus “has very little impact on young people”.
So what does science tell us about the risks of reopening, what are the social arguments and, if countries are to reopen, what is the most sensible way to proceed?
School closures are an established method of dealing with influenza epidemics. Because children have so many social contacts, they tend to acquire the disease at a high rate and become “superspreaders”. But with Covid-19, the evidence, while as yet incomplete, points in a different direction.
“The evidence that we do have suggests that the role of kids in transmission is nothing like the flu,” says Alasdair Munro, a clinical research fellow at University Hospital, Southampton.
A major difference is that young children do not seem to be very susceptible to catching coronavirus. A study from Iceland, which randomly tested around 13,000 people, found that none of the 848 children under 10 who were part of the study tested positive for the virus.
Another, in the Italian town of Vo’, where they tested 86 per cent of the population, found no cases in the under-10s, despite an overall infection rate of 2.6 per cent. This was even though there were a number of children living with adults who had tested positive for Covid-19.
Many scientists urge caution in interpreting such statistics. Devi Sridhar, professor of global public health at Edinburgh university, doubts we yet know enough about the virus and children’s role in its transmission. “If it were small that might be transformational. But it might not be and that is the worry.” Recent research from the UK’s Office for National Statistics, based on community reporting, suggests that children may be just as prone to catch the disease.
There are also questions about whether Covid-19 has knock-on effects for children, such as a syndrome that leads to severe inflammation in multiple organs of the body. This has been observed in a small number of cases in London and New York, although the link remains unclear.
The evidence does not suggest the young play an outsized role in spreading the disease. “When kids don’t make up a large section of the infected population, it’s hard for them to be superspreaders,” Dr Munro says.
This also explains why some scientists have questioned the effectiveness of school closures. Recent modelling studies, cited in a review by Russell Viner, a professor at Great Ormond Street Institute of Child Health, suggest that they may prevent only 2-4 per cent of deaths, which is much less than the impact of other social distancing interventions.
“The overall conclusion is that school closures are not the biggest players in controlling Covid-19,” he says.
Scientists may fret about the pros and cons of imposing school closures. But for educationalists, the welfare costs to students are clear.
“Education is suffering big time,” says Peter Lampl, founder and chairman of the Sutton Trust, a charity that strives to improve social mobility among children. “It’s really hurting children in moderate and low income households.”
Even quite short absences from classrooms can leave pupils noticeably worse off. A 2013 study that looked at teacher strikes in Canada showed that school closures of just four weeks had a major impact, equivalent to moving an average child down to the bottom 30 per cent of children. The biggest decline was seen in maths.
The effect is more marked on children from less well off backgrounds, according to Sutton Trust research. This notes that while 23 per cent of UK pupils are reported to be taking part in online lessons every day in the lockdown, that is heavily weighted to middle-class students (30 per cent). In less affluent households, the figure drops to just 16 per cent.
Home schooling further tilts the scales towards those whose parents are wealthier and better educated. Those with degrees feel more confident directing their children’s schooling. Middle-class homes are also more likely to have the equipment and space to enable remote working.
For some disadvantaged children, school is a refuge, where they can experience an ordered environment and get fed. Even before the Covid-19 outbreak, disadvantaged children in the UK were on average 18 months of learning behind other pupils by the time they got to 16, according to research by the Education Policy Institute, a think-tank.
“The consequences of both school closure and social and economic disruption could cause disadvantaged children to fall seriously behind, scuppering the [UK] government’s plans to level up opportunity,” its chairman, David Laws, says.
In a recent speech, the director-general of the World Health Organization, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, set three preconditions for reopening schools. Was the epidemic under control? Could the health system cope with a resurgence of cases? And was there a test and trace mechanism in place to permit a timely response against any fresh outbreaks?
Public health experts are particularly focused on the third precondition. Gabriel Scally, visiting professor in public health at Bristol university, says that for parents and teachers to have confidence in reopening schools, the ability to respond rapidly to localised outbreaks is essential.
“We need to know where the hotspots are, so we can decide whether opening is even sensible, or whether to shut down schools if outbreaks recur,” he says. “This is not a system of ‘one size fits all’.”
Once schools are open, there is a huge management challenge. Getting children under 10 to socially distance is not possible. Not only do they come into close contact with each other, but also with teachers who need to physically interact with pupils, including helping younger ones go to the toilet.
Managing that requires both smaller classes and segregation between classes (both pupils and teachers), including staggered start times and breaks.
Older teachers and those with health conditions may not be able to return to classrooms. The same applies to pupils who may live with old or vulnerable family members. That means alternative provisions must be made.
Julian Drinkall, chief executive of AET, one of the UK’s largest academy chains, sees staffing as the biggest hurdle. “Say we take back half the school in the first wave and also halve class sizes, then we will need 100 per cent of our teaching staff,” he says. “But only 70 per cent have presently signed up to come into schools.”
The need to build confidence among teachers is one reason many English schools are thinking about issuing staff with personal protective equipment, despite government guidance that this is not necessary.
In Oslo, Ms Hauge says staff have grown used to the new systems. “At first they were a bit uncertain, but now they are more used to it,” she says. “Some of them now think the rules a bit of a joke, like not being able to use the coffee machine but bringing everything from home.”
Prof Viner acknowledges that reopening before a vaccine has been produced is a risk, but sees it is an unavoidable one. “The key is managing uncertainty,” he says. “Around 150 children die in car crashes in Britain each year. But parents don’t say ‘never get in a car’. They buy child seats and use seat belts.”
He adds: “Parents are good at this sort of unconscious risk assessment, so long as they know what to look out for.”
Additional reporting by Richard Milne in Oslo