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Covid hits Europe schools hard as omicron stalks New-Year return


Once again parents are facing the dreaded prospect of school closures across Europe as a wave of virus infections hits the young and the omicron variant ramps up concern.

Governments are accelerating vaccinations to try and head off more economic pain in 2022. But with cases rising faster among children, many schools have shut early for Christmas break. The question parents have is whether they'll reopen as currently scheduled in January.

In Germany, where schools in some states have already closed, cases among the under 15s are running almost twice as high as the national average. The U.K. is seeing a similar trend, as are European Union countries including Austria and Ireland.

School closings would hit kids' education and be a headache for workers and businesses, forcing parents to work from home, if they can, or take time off.

The latest Covid-19 surge in the U.K. and Europe is already causing havoc. It's led to a raft of restrictions, including vaccine mandates, lockdowns and new travel rules.

Added to that is the growing evidence that omicron is the most contagious mutation yet and is better at evading vaccines. It's put Europe on alert that even with hundreds of millions of Covid-battling shots administered, the situation could get worse before it gets better.

U.K. lawmaker Ben Spencer put the worry bluntly during a lengthy parliament debate on new Covid measures this week: "Please, please, please, will the minister confirm that there are no plans for mandatory restrictions on schools and that we will never again close our schools?"

Health Secretary Sajid Javid said there's no certainty the government will be able to keep classrooms in England open.

In France, there were so many class closures last month that the government backtracked on a rule that classes would shut for a week as soon as one student was found to be positive, instead requiring the entire class to get tested. The rate of children under nine years old testing positive skyrocketed to 634 per 100,000 by Dec. 6, up from fewer than 100 in early November.

"Children are the biggest contamination pool at the moment," Karine Lacombe, who heads the infectious-disease department at Saint Antoine hospital in Paris, said on RTL radio Tuesday.

Denmark's government closed all primary schools on Tuesday, as much as a week ahead of schedule. That's also happened in the Netherlands and parts of Switzerland.

One reason for the spread within schools is the fact that young children are among the last group in the population to get vaccinated. Shots for 5-to-11-year-olds are in the early stages of rollout in Europe, and drugmakers are still conducting trials on preschool children and babies.

While children haven't directly suffered as much from Covid-19, often contracting the virus asymptomatically or mildly, they've not been completely spared.

A small number have developed multi-system inflammatory syndrome in children, or MIS-C, a sometimes deadly pediatric condition associated with Covid. A much larger number have long Covid -- symptoms such as fatigue and brain fog that persist long after the infection.

But beyond the immediate fallout, children are another means of transmission to vulnerable adults and grandparents. The arrival of winter has meant more time spent indoors in classrooms with closed windows.

On the other hand, children may be at greater risk of catching Covid outside of the classroom, especially if schools adhere to strict measures including frequent testing and masks. That's been the case in Germany, where full-year data shows that infection rates in schools stayed stable despite the circulation of increasingly infectious virus strains, according to Joerg Doetsch, president of the German Society for Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine.

Countries are now trying to address the vaccination gap. Germany started giving shots to children aged 5-to-11 this week, although it only recommended vulnerable kids with preexisting medical conditions receive them. Greece and Italy also opened vaccinations for this age group in recent days and Belgium is set to follow.

In the U.K., vaccines for 5-to-11-year-olds may be authorized before Christmas. Britain also changed its guidance on a second dose for 12-to-15-year-olds in the face of omicron. Switzerland plans to start inoculating under-12s in January.

But if omicron takes hold, and authorities see schools as a key route for transmission, reopenings may be delayed.

For some, school closures are a last resort. Christoph Berger, the head of Switzerland's Federal Vaccination Commission, said this week that closures are possible, but there may be other measures -- more mask wearing, regular tests -- that can be done first.

In Belgium, some government officials have made clear it's the nuclear option.

Even with omicron, "schools are absolutely essential," said Michael Devoldere, a spokesman for the Flemish ministry for education. "Schools should be closed only when there really is no other resort."

Published : December 19, 2021

By : Bloomberg