Denmark’s approach is being closely watched as other countries debate similar measures

A week after Danish children and primary teachers returned to their classrooms, health officials and education experts around the world are still debating the merits of reopening schools as European countries and the US ponder ways to ease Covid 19-related closures to restart their economies without reviving the epidemic.
At the heart of the debate are trade-offs between the risk of children spreading the virus further, the economic disruption from keeping them at home and the impact on their education and well-being. Any decision about schools should also take into account a country’s level of infection and ability to detect and respond, researchers say.
“There is a strong case for primary school reopenings to allow parents to restart the economy, given early evidence of low infection in and from young children and the risks to attainment of staying home, “ Kalipso Chalkidou, director of global health policy at the Center for Global Development think-tank, said. “But there is a need to ensure sufficient testing first.” 
Scandinavian countries have been some of the more relaxed over fears that schools might be clusters of transmission. Norway reopened kindergartens this week. Iceland and Sweden never closed their primary schools — judging that the benefits outweighed the risks. Johan Carlson, director of Sweden’s public health agency, has called evidence for school closures “very vague”.
Dorte Lange, vice-president of the Danish Association of Teachers, said: “These first few days have been very well orchestrated by headmasters and teachers, and parents are feeling quite good about it.”
One argument in favour of reopening schools is that young children are less likely to develop serious Covid-19 symptoms. Sampling in Iceland this month showed those under 10 were far less likely to be infected than older cohorts. Another study into the case of a boy who contracted the virus on a skiing trip indicated that none of those he came into contact with developed symptoms, including his siblings.
Russell Viner, a professor at Great Ormond Street Institute of Child Health who conducted a recent review of the limited number of studies into closing schools during virus outbreaks, said: “The overall conclusion is that school closures are not the biggest players in controlling Covid-19.”
It is still too early to safely reopen UK schools, said one expert © Christopher Furlong/Getty 
Yet a modelling analysis from Nicholas Davies of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine concluded that school closures were one of several interventions that had a “moderate” effect on limiting transmission.
Combined with social distancing, the shielding of vulnerable and elderly groups, and self-isolation for those displaying symptoms, school closures “flattened the curve” significantly to help reduce the spread of infection, he said.
“Anything that risks re-establishing bridges of transmission between households that are currently isolated from each other should be approached with caution,” Mr Davies said. Referring to the UK he said: “I would say it is still too early to safely reopen schools.”
However, the risks of children returning home from school and exposing older relatives is likely to be higher in cultures and countries where families of different generations cohabit than in those where elderly people tend to live in their own homes.
In Denmark, for example, it is less common for older people to live with their children and grandchildren than in southern European countries.
Meanwhile the devastating impact of the lockdowns is increasingly apparent. Allowing parents to return to work is key to revive economies that have ground to a halt. When announcing the likely reopening of schools next month, French president Emmanuel Macron mainly stressed the detrimental effects on learning for children of poor families.
“The evidence suggests it is likely to increase inequalities in education . . . and an overall fall in pupil achievement,” said Lindsey Macmillan, economist at University College London. 
These concerns are greater in low income countries, where absences increase malnutrition, abuse and drop out.
But teachers’ unions in France and Germany — both of which are set to begin reopening schools in the coming weeks — remain concerned about their own members’ safety, as well as the practicalities of implementing hygiene measures with young children.
“There is no clarity as to how social distancing would or even could be implemented in schools, particularly for younger age groups,” said Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the National Education Union in the UK, which has yet to announce plans to reopen schools.
Prof Viner stressed it was a mistake to focus on “binary” approaches, pointing out that even in countries were schools were closed for most children, they remained open for vulnerable youngsters and those whose parents were classed as key workers.
When children eventually return to the classroom, the school schedules will be overhauled. Methods to limit infection could include much greater spacing between desks, alternate attendance by pupils on different days or times of the day and allowing only one class at a time into the playground.
Prof Viner said lessons from Denmark and elsewhere will be observed closely so practices could be modified accordingly. “We are in totally uncharted territory,” he said.