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'You feel the risk of your decision no matter what': How parents feel about the return to school

Key Points
  • Homeschooling has been the norm for many families over the last five months.
  • At the height of the coronavirus pandemic, many schools only stayed open to the children of key workers. 
Pupils wearing facemasks arrive to attend classes at Moor End Academy in Huddersfield, northern England on September 11, 2020.
OLI SCARFF | AFP | Getty Images

LONDON — After months out of school, children around the world are returning to the classroom. And while parents feel it's best for their kids, shaking those first-day nerves has been a challenge. 

Homeschooling has been the norm for many families over the last five months, as a lot of schools only stayed open to the children of key workers, due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Gillian Harvey, a writer who lives in a small town near Limoges in France, said that she was initially nervous about her five children returning to school.

"I made sure I told them all the facts properly before they went back, but also that they are human and there may well be a time when they forget a hygiene measure (e.g. forget to wash their hands properly) and that it's OK and human and they must just do their best and follow the rules to the best of their ability," Harvey told CNBC via email.

She's started to feel better about the situation since their return.

"I think the schools are handling it well," she said, with the use of social bubbles for younger children, along with social distancing and hand gel for older students.

Children in France returned to schools at the beginning of September. But by the end of the first week, French Education Minister Jean-Michel Blanquer said 22 schools had closed across the country and in its territories due to virus cases. On Monday—after the sixteenth straight day of rising hospitalizations —school trips and student parties were suspended in Marseille.

To date, France has reported 425,870 cases of Covid-19 and 30,958 related deaths, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University.

"I always thought there would be a couple of cases at first — people are returning from holidays and I wish there'd been some sort of encouragement for families to stay at home the week before term started," Harvey said.

But she added that it was "a horrible time for parents … you feel the risk of your decision no matter what it is."

'Not sufficient'

Another mother in London, who preferred to remain anonymous, told CNBC over the phone that she felt her son's school had gone beyond the average measures to ensure a safe return to the classroom.

She welcomed her son's return to school, not only as a parent balancing childcare with working from home these past months, but also for his mental health.

U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson has emphasized this repeatedly in recent weeks, saying it is "vitally important" for children to return to school in September, with British parents possibly facing fines if they refuse to comply.

The mother CNBC spoke to, however, did indicate that she was concerned about rising infections among the wider public and how transmission could then filter through schools, referring to the reported coronavirus outbreaks in 339 schools in England and Wales last week. In the U.K., 373,559 people have contracted Covid-19 and 41,726 have died from the virus.

She felt that the U.K.'s contact tracing system was "not sufficient."

"I advocate for a strong local contract tracing and informing system, like what (South) Korea has put in the place," she said.

Knowing about an outbreak in a local school, restaurant or supermarket would keep people better informed and help manage community transmission more efficiently, she argued.

Schools risk 'getting the blame'

Children appear to be less severely affected by the coronavirus, however, the role they play in spreading the virus is less certain.

The World Health Organization recently warned that an increasing body of evidence suggests children do play a role in the spread of Covid-19, but classrooms are not thought to be a "main contributor" to the pandemic.

Transitional kindergartner Caleb Simon, 4, waits with fellow students outside Weaver Elementary School on the first day of in-person learning in Rossmoor, CA, on Tuesday, September 8, 2020.
Jeff Gritchen | Getty Images

Indeed, experts have highlighted some points that might be reassuring to parents.

Mike Tildesley, an associate professor who specializes in infectious disease control at the University of Warwick in the U.K., told CNBC that the highest risk of transmission was actually "probably within households" with "unregulated mixing" between groups.

He said this was the reason behind a lot of the localized restrictions that have been imposed in the north of England in recent weeks, clamping down on meetings between different households, due to rising cases. The U.K. government announced measures last week that meant from Monday, people were unable to meet socially in groups from other households of more than six people.

Tildesley said that one of the difficulties is that schools are one of the last public areas to re-open.

He said it was "unfortunate timing" with the "R" number — the virus' reproduction rate — hovering around one, which is when it is considered dangerous. He referred back to research Warwick University published in June that suggested the re-opening of schools alone was unlikely to lead to a second wave of coronavirus cases.

"My real worry is that schools could end up getting the blame for cases starting to rise, because all this other stuff has happened, but actually there's an awful lot that's happened to get to this point," Tildesley added.

'Reassuring' study

Olivia Swann, a clinical lecturer in pediatric infectious disease at the University of Edinburgh, told CNBC via email that she had worked on a study of 138 hospitals across England, Scotland and Wales, looking at children admitted with the coronavirus.

Admissions for children under 19 years' old accounted for less than 1% of those across all age groups. And, of those 651 children that were admitted, six died from the virus — all of which had "complex health issues." What's more, more than 40% of children in that study had one or more underlying health conditions, some which were very complex. But Swann added that most did not need intensive care input and made good recoveries.

"As a parent, a children's doctor, and a scientist, I find our study very reassuring at a time when children are returning to school," Swann said. However, she stressed that she was not suggesting people become complacent, but carry on with practices such as physical-distancing and hand washing.

School absence rate significantly higher year-on-year

Data published Tuesday by the Department for Education estimated that 12% of state school pupils in England did not attend class in the first week of September. During the last academic year, the overall absence rate was 4.7%.

Examining this estimate together with data from the most recent school census, which reported a state-school pupil population of just over 8 million, indicated that as many as 974,400 pupils were not present at school during the first week of term.

Similar statistics released at the beginning of September by the Scottish Government showed that over 15.5% of pupils missed school on the first Friday back—over 100,000 pupils—though only 22,821 of those absences were designated "Covid-19 related." The data from England's Department for Education includes pupils absent for both Covid-19 and non-Covid-19 related reasons.

Attendance figures for Welsh and Northern Irish schools are yet to be made available by their respective governments.

— CNBC's Jordan Butt contributed to this report.