Europe’s children return to school packing textbooks and, for many, face masks

The latest:

  • Tens of millions of pupils return to school in Europe with coronavirus precautions in place.
  • Health Canada says it is willing to consider approving home COVID-19 tests to screen for the virus.
  • Egypt reopens ancient sites for the first time since they were closed in March.
  • High proportion of coronavirus infections among U.S. health-care personnel appear to go undetected, report says.
  • Russia’s coronavirus cases surpass one million.
  • Hong Kong begins mass testing for virus amid public doubts.
  • India’s coronavirus surge eases slightly as millions take exams.

Tens of millions of pupils returned to school in France, Poland and Russia on Tuesday, their backpacks loaded with exercise books, geometry sets and, for many, face masks to protect them from a resurgent coronavirus pandemic.

Handwashing stations, physical distancing and staggered play time will become the new normal as countries across Europe seek ways to get children back into the classroom safely and their economies functioning once again.

But they do so at a time when infection rates are spiralling upward across the continent and there are widespread concerns that the return to schools and offices, the autumn flu season and excess mortality in winter could drive a second wave.

Students with protective masks stand in the courtyard in Brequigny high school in Rennes, western France, on the first day of school Tuesday. In France, only schoolchildren above the age of 11 have to wear a face mask. (Damien Meyer/AFP/Getty Images)

Countries are taking different approaches to minimize contagion in schools. Spain’s 17 regions are responsible for their own back-to-school plan, though they must follow national regulations such as mandatory masks for children over six.

At the Immaculate and St. Joseph of the Mountain centre, a Catholic school in Ronda, southern Spain, staff were spacing out desks and setting up a one-way system through corridors ahead of reopening on Sept. 10.

“We’ve put in gel, we can take their temperature, we’ve got spacing in all the classrooms,” explained the school’s director, Mother Marta, dressed in a starched white habit and matching white mask. “We’re doing everything we can.”

Teachers measure the distance between desks last week as they prepare a classroom for the return of students at the Immaculate and St. Joseph of the Mountain school in Ronda, southern Spain. (Jon Nazca/Reuters)

The French government said the crisis must not put citizens’ lives on hold, while British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said it was crucial schools in England reopen this week. Schools in Scotland reopened earlier this month, with face masks mandatory for secondary school students except in classrooms.

Johnson is under pressure to show he can oversee a full return to school after his Conservative government made a hash of how school-leavers would be graded for exams that were cancelled during the lockdown.

But unions have complained of chaos caused by last-minute changes and stressed the importance of a “Plan B” should a second wave hit.

“You don’t need a crystal ball to see that local restrictions will be a feature of the autumn and winter,” said Paul Whiteman, general secretary of head teachers union NAHT.

At the height of coronavirus lockdowns globally in April, some 1.5 billion children were affected by school closures, according to UNESCO. School closures widened the inequality gap, experts have said.

The risk of coronavirus transmission within schools depends on what is happening in the local community as well as the safety measures put in place, according to epidemiologists.

Global data on the spread of the coronavirus shows that children and young people make up only one to two per cent of cases of COVID-19 worldwide. Most reported infections in children are mild or asymptomatic, with few recorded deaths.

WATCH | Back-to-school shopping in the COVID-19 era:

As kids prepare to go back to school in September, masks and sanitizer are essential shopping items. One family shares how they are adapting, and a mask maker on how they’re trying to make the experience more kid-friendly. 2:16

Germany and Sweden may offer some reassurance.

In Germany, where schools have been reopening since early August, the proportion of coronavirus cases among under-20s has remained stable.

In Sweden, keeping schools open through the pandemic did not lead to higher infection rates among students compared with neighbouring Finland, where schools temporarily closed.

What’s happening with coronavirus in Canada

As of 12 p.m. ET on Tuesday, Canada had 129,182 confirmed and presumptive coronavirus cases. Provinces and territories listed 114,399 of those as recovered or resolved. A CBC News tally of deaths based on provincial reports, regional health information and CBC’s reporting stood at 9,165.

Health Canada is willing to consider approving home COVID-19 tests to screen for the virus, a spokesperson for the minister of health told Reuters, in a win for public health experts and doctors who have argued that frequent and inexpensive testing could beat back the pandemic.

The health ministry had previously said it was concerned that people might misuse home tests or misinterpret the results.

“In response to the evolution of the pandemic, Health Canada is now considering applications for home testing devices for screening purposes,” said Cole Davidson, spokesperson for the minister of health, said in a statement.

WATCH | Isolating new COVID-19 cases as schools reopen is key, epidemiologist says:

Schools are doing the best they can within some practical limitations, but isolating new cases is paramount, says Montreal epidemiologist Dr. Christopher Labos. 3:04

In June of this year, Health Canada had indicated that it would not review applications for home test kits, as at that time, “the Department’s position was in relation to the use of home tests for diagnostic purposes,” the statement said.

Screening tests are meant to monitor large groups of seemingly healthy people for illness, while diagnostic tests investigate symptoms.

The change could allow for self collection, where samples are sent to a lab for processing, and spur the development of new tests to detect the virus at home.

On the vaccine front, Canada’s federal government has signed agreements with two U.S. drug companies to secure up to 114 million doses of potential COVID-19 vaccines under development.

WATCH | Infectious disease specialist lauds Canada’s vaccine deals:

“We just need to have as many sticks in the fire as possible,” says infectious disease specialist Dr. Isaac Bogoch. 3:00

Maryland-based biotechnology company Novavax announced in a media release Monday that it has struck a deal to produce 76 million doses of a vaccine it is working on for the Canadian government, should the vaccine ever get Health Canada approval.

Later in the day, Ottawa announced it has signed a separate deal with a subsidiary of New Jersey-based drug conglomerate Johnson & Johnson to secure up to 38 million doses of the company’s potential vaccine, which is completely different from Novavax’s.

Here’s what’s happening around the world

According to the tally kept by Johns Hopkins University, the global total of confirmed coronavirus cases is now more than 25.5 million. More than 851,000 people have died, while 16.8 million have recovered.

In the United States, a high proportion of novel coronavirus infections among health-care personnel appear to go undetected, according to a report included Monday in the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Between April and June, among more than 3,000 frontline workers in 12 states, roughly one in 20 had antibody evidence of a previous novel coronavirus infection, but 69 per cent of those infections had never been diagnosed.

A sign promotes a new rapid coronavirus test at a ProHEALTH centre in the Brooklyn borough of New York City last week. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Infections among frontline health-care personnel may be going undetected, the study authors say, because some infections may be only minimally symptomatic or asymptomatic and also because personnel with symptoms may not always have access to testing.

Egypt on Tuesday reopened its ancient sites in Cairo and elsewhere in the country for the first time since they were closed in March to stem the coronavirus.

The reopening came despite a recent upward trend in new infections. Antiquities Minister Khalid el-Anany says museums, temples and other sites are reopened at 50 per cent capacity.

In the southern ancient city of Luxor, tourists from France and Ukraine visited the famed Karnak Temple, arriving from the Red Sea resort of Hurghada, according to the ministry.

Muslim worshippers, mask-clad and distanced from each other, perform Friday prayers in the courtyard of the historic al-Azhar mosque in Cairo on Aug. 28, when Egypt allowed Friday prayers to resume in major mosques. (Mohamed El-Shahed/AFP/Getty Images)

Egypt’s Health Ministry has reported more than 98,900 confirmed cases and 5,421 deaths.

Russia’s tally of confirmed coronavirus cases surpassed one million on Tuesday as authorities reported 4,729 new cases.

With a total of 1,000,048 reported cases, Russia has the fourth largest caseload in the world after the U.S., Brazil and India. Over 815,000 people have so far recovered, authorities said, and more than 17,000 have died.

Students at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations wear protective masks as they attend a meeting with the Russian foreign minister on the first day of the academic year on Tuesday. (Dimitar Dilkoff/AFP/Getty Images)

Experts say the true toll of the pandemic is much higher than all reported figures, due to limited testing, missed mild cases and concealment of cases by some governments, among other factors.

As of Tuesday, Russia has lifted most lockdown restrictions in the majority of the country’s regions.

Hong Kong tested thousands of people for coronavirus Tuesday at the start of a mass-testing effort that’s become another political flashpoint in the semi-autonomous Chinese region.

Volunteers stood in lines at some of the more than 100 testing centres, though many residents are distrustful over the resources and staff being provided by China’s central government and some have expressed fear DNA could be collected.

Health-care professionals conduct swab tests at a makeshift testing site in the Queen Elizabeth Stadium in Hong Kong on Tuesday. (Anthony Kwan/Getty Images)

The Hong Kong government has dismissed such concerns, and leader Carrie Lam urged the public to see the program in a fair and objective light and appealed to critics to stop discouraging people from being tested since participation was crucial to the program’s success.

India’s tally of coronavirus infections rose to nearly 3.7 million on Tuesday, as millions of masked students sat for college admission exams after the government refused to defer them.

India, the world’s third most affected country by the pandemic after the United States and Brazil, reported 69,921 new coronavirus infections on Tuesday, the lowest in six days.

A health worker collects a swab sample from a woman to test for the coronavirus from an ambulance in front of a municipal market in Kolkata, India, on Tuesday. (Dibyangshu Sarkar/AFP/Getty Images)

It took the overall number of cases to 3.69 million, while the death toll from COVID-19 rose by 819 to 65,288. On Sunday, India reported 78,761 new cases, the world’s biggest, single-day tally.

More than two million masked students filed into exam centres across India on Tuesday to take tests for admission to medical and engineering schools, with physical distancing guidelines, hand sanitization stations and temperature checks in place.


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