Should European Schools be open during the pandemic?

By Silvia Andreoletti, ESF

Whatever the decision, our everyday lives will change drastically

The Covid-19 pandemic has been undoubtedly the most impactful, ongoing event of the year 2020, influencing every aspect of our lives. In most parts of Europe, the crisis seemed over by late spring, but with rumors of a second wave coming and the beginning of school inching closer, is returning to business as usual really the best course of action?

Here in Germany, during early Summer for some time cases hovered between 10 and 15 per 100,000 inhabitants, comfortably under the level at which lockdown will be reinstated, but elsewhere, such as Spain or Luxembourg, the situation started worsening again. In Luxembourg, for example, in early August 2020 the 14-day average per 100,000 inhabitants was 150 infections: this might not seem like a lot, but in a 3000+ people school, there would be on average of 5 cases every 2 weeks. This has raised the question at that point whether children should go back to school with precautions, although how realistically the measures can be implemented varies, or whether we’re all just better off following lessons from our couch through online learning.

Overall, in-person lessons seem to be preferred by European School students, as 67% voted in a poll in June 2020, but physical presence in school comes with a risk to both pupils and teachers. Assuming that there will be a new increase in Corona cases in September, at least in the beginning, no matter what the school does (since students returning from the holidays could have gotten it from crowded trains, beaches, airplanes, and so on), the priority should be to keep others from being infected and stop a school-wide epidemic.

The schools have proposed steps by making masks mandatory, enforcing social distancing and encouraging good hygiene and frequent hand washing. Although, this sounds great in theory, practice is much harder. Masks are the most obvious challenge, particularly with younger students: thus under 12 year old are in most countries not obliged to wear them in school. Although the situation might be easier to control with older students in the Secondary cycle, this comes also with its own set of challenges. Unlike Primary pupils, who stay in the same classroom almost all day and have limited contact with other children, students in Secondary school change classes and teachers every period, and many classes are made up of a mix of pupils from different language sections. In normal circumstances, this is what makes European Schools great, but in pandemic times make returning to school much more dangerous.

One idea was to create “bubbles” of students, or groups which never change and always stay in the same room. This would have however limited the possible subjects greatly due to limited teacher availability, and undermine the whole concept of unity and collaboration that makes our schools so special. Furthermore, even if we did manage to have lessons as usual, every part of school life and class dynamics will be different. Choir, orchestra and other extracurricular activities are difficult to organize as well as inter-school events like Fames, Eurosport and the Science Symposium; lessons like music and sport more complicated to take place. Furthermore, masks make it more difficult to communicate and hide facial expressions, so class discussions are clunky and awkward; those of us who always have to be told to speak up will no doubt suffer a nervous breakdown in the first weeks in school.

Another challenge is enforcing social distancing: the German Government recommends 1.5m between people in public spaces: this is impossible to respect in many parts of school life, such as in the bathrooms, corridors, lockers, cafeterias and at the beginning and end of the school day. Even if these limits were somehow enforced, they are making social life more difficult and make younger kids feel isolated: they are also mostly useless, because many students rely on public transportation to go to and from school every day, and overcrowded buses and trains make social distancing impossible. This might be avoided if some or most parents decided to bring their children to school by car, but the environmental impact of that would be enormous, as is the impact of single-use facemasks, which are discarded at the end of every day and take 450 years to decompose.

As we have seen, in-person schooling during Corona is impractical at best and might have disastrous consequences for students and teachers if there really is a school-wide epidemic: but online schooling is arguably even worse. The first issue is the quality of education: teachers have been trained and are used to teaching in classrooms and looking at students in the face, so we cannot expect them to change their teaching style and be as good as they are usually. Last school year, distance learning worked well because classroom dynamics were already well established and students and teachers had already got to know each other and formed relationships: if a class has a new teacher, they will not bond with students as well as they would in person. Relationships with teachers are important beyond education purposes: some see their teacher as a mentor, and might choose to confide in them and use them as an example, especially if they are having a tough family life; the same goes for Pedagogical Advisors, school nurses and psychologists, and so on. This would become almost impossible with online learning, which tends to be much more sterile and transactional than in-person lessons in other aspects as well.  Another obvious aspect is tests and exams: these would have to be done online, where cheating is laughably easy and, unlike last year, where teachers knew students and so could often realize when what they handed in was not their own work, this year it would be almost undetectable, which could lead to some false allegations too. As teachers are less present in students’ lives, younger children have to rely on their parents for help, and younger Secondary pupils will need a lot of self-discipline to finish their work on time and get good marks, which puts less mature or troubled students at a disadvantage. Perhaps the most crucial argument against online learning is its impact on students’ mental health and well-being. New students of all ages will find making friends to be even harder than it usually is, and many friendships could deteriorate after a long time of little contact, which makes pupils feel isolated and depressed. Some older teens will inevitably meet anyway, and with minimal social distancing, so a case can be made for letting them see each other at school in a controlled environment where they can be safer.

Ultimately, the decision between allowing pupils and teachers to return to school or keep on with distance learning is about the trade-off between safety, and students’ well-being and education: This difficult decision was taken by  the Secretary general in September to allow pupils back to school, but whatever happens, I am sure the 2020/21 school year will be unlike any we have seen before!

All figures as of 9/08/2020

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