MARSEILLE, France (AP) — Twelve million children in France went back to school Thursday for the new academic year, wearing face masks as part of rules aimed at slowing down the spread of the coronavirus in the country.
In France as in other European countries, many fear the end of the summer break will see a new surge in COVID-19 infections fueled by the highly contagious delta variant. French media cite the example of Scotland and Germany where reports of new cases increased after schools reopened.
Visiting a primary school in the southern city of Marseille, French President Emmanuel Macron praised as “a victory” being able to open schools.
Macron was greeted with a fist bump by children and teachers, all wearing masks, which are mandatory indoors starting from age 6.
“I want to pay tribute to students, teachers, all staff and families because I know we imposed some constraints on everyone,” he said. “We must continue to live, educate and learn with the virus.”
Children are also required to wash their hands often, and classrooms must be regularly ventilated. Contact sports have been banned from schools.
France’s virus situation has slightly improved in recent weeks, with about 17,000 confirmed cases of infection each day on average, down from more than 23,000 around mid-August.
Macron urged teenagers to get the vaccine, open to those age 12 and older. Schools are organizing vaccinations for those who want to get the shot. Consent from at least one parent is needed for 12-16s.
More than 63% of people aged 12-17 have received at least one shot, and 47% are fully vaccinated.
France is one among countries around the world that have maintained the highest rate of in-person classes during the COVID-19 crisis. The country closed its schools completely or partially for 12 weeks between March 2020 and July this year, to compare with 38 weeks in neighboring Germany and 58 weeks in the United States, according to UNESCO figures.
“We have refused to sacrifice whole generations by keeping them away from school for a long time,” government spokesperson Gabriel Attal said.
In primary schools, if one child tests positive for the virus, the class will close for seven days.
In middle and high schools, children who test positive and those who aren’t vaccinated and have been in contact with them will be placed into isolation for at least one week. Those fully vaccinated will be allowed to keep going to school.
In neighboring Germany, authorities in Berlin decided Thursday to extend rules requiring children and staff to wear masks in schools in the capital through Oct. 3 because of infection rates among young people. Originally, officials hoped only to require masks for a few weeks after the school year started in early August.
An association of pediatricians BVKJ said there’s currently no cause for concern regarding COVID-19 cases among children and young people, despite an increase in cases among the group. The association’s spokesman Jakob Maske told the RND media group “no increase in the rate of illness or more serious courses (of illness) has been found.”
Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg on Thursday called the situation in Norway “challenging” after the Scandinavian country in recent days has seen a spike in new cases, chiefly among those aged between 13 and 19.
Solberg said school children aged between 12 and 15 would be offered one shot of vaccine and urged to use regular mass testing. “We did not get a school start where as many students as possible could be at school as much as we wanted,” she said.
In Italy, schools opened their doors this week to administrative staff and teachers only so they can prepare for when pupils return, which, depending on region, will happen by Sept. 20.
Teachers and other school staff, except for cafeteria workers and designated aides for students with disabilities, must have received at least one vaccine dose, or recovered from COVID-19 in the past six months, or test negative in the 48 hours before entering school premises.
Corbet reported from Saulieu. Associated Press journalists Frank Jordans and Geir Moulson in Berlin, Frances D’Emilio in Rome and Jan M. Olsen in Copenhagen contributed to the story.