The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Europe wanted to keep schools open this winter. Coronavirus surges have disrupted those plans.

Teacher Claudia Mohme conducts a lesson for just two pupils amid the coronavirus pandemic in Bonn, Germany, on Dec. 14. (Wolfgang Rattay/Reuters)
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BERLIN — Surging coronavirus outbreaks in a number of nations are forcing governments to close schools, despite initial promises to keep them open this winter.

The latest country to change course is Germany, where most schools will move to distance learning Wednesday as part of tougher new lockdown rules. Widening outbreaks have also triggered the closure of schools in the Netherlands and in Asia, where the South Korean capital, Seoul, opted for similar measures this week.

The school closures in Germany and the Netherlands mark a notable turnaround in Europe, where governments said this fall that keeping schools open would be a priority, arguing that they aren’t significant drivers of coronavirus outbreaks.

Numerous studies have shown that the virus spreads less readily among children, with one recent Icelandic research project concluding that those under 15 are only half as likely as adults to become infected with the virus and to spread it.

France managed to significantly curb the spread of the virus with second lockdowns in November, despite keeping schools open.

Still, researchers warn that surging infection rates can turn schools into transmission hot spots, with secondary schools posing a particular risk.

The United States and Europe have handled the coronavirus outbreak differently. The Post's Rick Noack explains Europe's strategy. (Video: Rick Noack/The Washington Post)

“When you look at the infection rate, it goes up linearly with age, from 10 to 20 years,” said Kari Stefansson, CEO of Icelandic biopharmaceutical company Decode Genetics, which recently concluded a large-scale analysis of coronavirus infections among children in the country.

In collaboration with Iceland’s Directorate of Health, the researchers compared children’s and adults’ likelihood of catching and transmitting the virus, based on a large data set of quarantined Icelandic residents who had been exposed to the virus.

Even though young children were found to be far less vulnerable, the researchers concluded that older students in particular can contribute to clusters.

Stefansson said the decision by Germany and the Netherlands to close schools “is understandable” in light of those findings and given the countries’ surging outbreaks.

More regions of Europe could reach a similar conclusion in the coming weeks. In London, Mayor Sadiq Khan called on British Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Monday to close the city’s secondary schools, saying students were now responsible for a “significant” share of infections in the British capital.

The European closures bring the continent more in line with the United States, where schools in parts of the country postponed reopening plans or closed in recent weeks. But whereas U.S. school closures have in some areas preceded tougher restrictions on other fronts — including the closure of bars or restaurants — Europe’s most recent school shutdowns have come as a last-resort measure and amid nationwide lockdowns.

Countries around the world closed schools this year amid the first wave of the virus, at some point disrupting the education of almost 9 in 10 students worldwide, according to UNICEF. Students living in poor countries have been affected far more by those closures than their peers in wealthier nations with access to laptops and reliable Internet, the U.N. agency warned, but even in some of Europe’s wealthiest nations the closures sparked concern.

Researchers cautioned that prolonged school shutdowns will exacerbate mental health issues and put students from poorer families at a disadvantage.

In a strategy paper published in October, Germany’s infectious-disease agency emphasized that the country should aim to keep schools open in the months ahead, echoing similar comments from officials in other European Union nations.

Even though those hopes are beginning to be disappointed, there are indications that the closures this winter may look different than they did in spring.

Some regions in Germany have opted for a loophole that will make attendance in class voluntary, meaning that children are strongly encouraged to stay home but can go to school if their parents aren’t able to work from home.

Denmark, which has also seen cases surge in recent days, said that it will for now exclude only older students from in-person teaching but that measures could be tightened if the restrictions fail to have a sufficient impact.

“You should sacrifice a lot to be able to keep schools open because they are so important for children,” said Stefansson, the Icelandic researcher. “But you have to do so cognizant of the fact that you’re sacrificing something,” he said.