In Germany, early results of school reopenings are hopeful, but it’s ‘messy and imperfect.’
As Americans anxiously debate how to reopen schools, and more campuses cancel in-person lessons, Europe is a living laboratory. Despite a sharp increase in coronavirus cases in recent weeks, even countries that were badly hit last spring, like Italy, Spain, Britain and France, are determined to return to regular classes this fall.
Germany, which was far less affected at the peak of the pandemic, shuttered schools early on, then moved to a hybrid model of remote and in-classroom learning. Class sizes were smaller, and strict social-distancing rules helped keep infection numbers in check.
But now a new experiment is underway: Teachers and students have been summoned back to classes, testing whether the new vigilance is enough.
Social distancing and face masks are mandatory on most school grounds, but rarely inside classrooms, despite recent advice from the World Health Organization that children 12 and over wear masks when distancing is impossible. If students had to wear masks for several hours a day, the argument in Germany goes, their ability to learn would suffer.
Instead, schools aim to better ventilate classrooms and keep classes separate so that each student has contact with only a few dozen others, and outbreaks can be contained.
Germany’s departure from the more cautious, part-time reopening strategy is rooted partly in resource constraints: Like most countries, it has too few teachers to split students into smaller classes and allow for social distancing.
But several weeks into returning to school, educators and even virologists who were skeptical about reopening say that early results look hopeful. Despite individual infections popping up in dozens of schools, there have been no serious outbreaks — and no lasting closures.
Berlin is a case in point: By the end of last week, 49 infections had been recorded among teachers and students across the city. But thanks to fast testing and targeted quarantines, no more than 600 students out of some 366,000 have had to stay home on any given day. Of 803 schools, only 39 have been affected.
“It’s messy and imperfect and I would have liked to see more precautions, but the main takeaway so far is: It’s working,” said Sandra Ciesek, a virologist at the University Hospital of Frankfurt who signed a statement by leading German virologists supporting the reopenings.
In a speech that struck a strikingly different tone from others at the Republican National Convention, the first lady, Melania Trump, on Tuesday acknowledged the pandemic’s human toll and praised the efforts of frontline medical personnel and other essential workers.
In her speech from the Rose Garden at the White House, Mrs. Trump called Covid-19 an “invisible enemy” that had swept across the nation. She also extended her sympathies to those who were ill or who had lost loved ones.
“I know many people are anxious and some feel helpless,” she said. “I want you to know you’re not alone. My husband’s administration will not stop fighting until there is an effective treatment or vaccine available to everyone.”
“Donald will not rest until he has done all he can to take care of everyone impacted by this terrible pandemic,” she added.
So far, most of the convention speakers who mentioned the pandemic have referred to it in the past tense and rarely mentioned its national toll. As of Wednesday morning, at least 5.7 million people in the United States have been infected with the coronavirus and at least 178,000 have died, according to a New York Times database.
The tone of Mrs. Trump’s remarks also stood in contrast to her husband’s focus on defending his response to the virus and pinning the blame for it on China, while tending to mention the lives lost as an afterthought.
Mrs. Trump spoke moments after Secretary of State Mike Pompeo delivered a shorter and harsher speech, from a rooftop in Jerusalem, that was more in line with the president’s rhetoric on the pandemic. Mr. Pompeo, who is among the administration’s leading China hawks, argued that Mr. Trump had “pulled back the curtain on the predatory aggression of the Chinese Communist Party,” including its handling of the coronavirus.
“The president has held China accountable for covering up the China virus, and allowing it to spread death and destruction in America and around the world,” Mr. Pompeo said. “And he will not rest until justice is done.”
American islands in the Caribbean and Pacific, including the state of Hawaii, are emerging as some of the nation’s most alarming virus hot spots.
For months, geographic isolation helped spare Hawaii, Guam and the U.S. Virgin Islands from much of the agony unleashed by the pandemic. All adopted early mitigation efforts, and were able to restrict travelers more readily than mainland states could.
But their case counts are surging now, revealing how the virus can spread rapidly in places with relaxed restrictions, sluggish contact tracing and widespread pressure to end the economic pain that comes with lockdowns.
Inconsistent reopenings have sown confusion in Hawaii, especially in Honolulu, where gyms remain open but hiking trails and parks are closed. Restaurants in the city are open, but residents are not supposed to entertain visitors at home.
Gov. David Ige has defended the state’s contact-tracing efforts, telling reporters that they were “better than average and amongst the best in the country.” Even so, Hawaii now ranks among the states where new cases have grown fastest over the past 14 days.
“People are infecting each other in crowded apartments while hotels sit empty,” Dr. Jonathan Dworkin, an infectious disease expert who lives on Hawaii’s Big Island, wrote in a scathing assessment of Hawaii’s pandemic response in The Honolulu Star-Advertiser.
The situation on Guam, an American territory in the western Pacific, seems especially problematic. Cases are emerging in several schools, at the territorial port authority and in an emergency dispatch center.
The U.S. military has a major presence on Guam, with large naval and air bases. When the aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt was stricken with a virus outbreak in the spring, the ship put in to Guam, and hundreds of sailors were quarantined on shore.
The U.S. Virgin Islands, which registered almost no cases in the early days of the pandemic, is now dealing with nearly 1,000 new cases a day, pushing its per capita infection numbers higher than those of several states.
The authorities are shutting nonessential businesses and imposing stay-at-home orders, checking all visitors’ temperatures and conducting aggressive testing of residents, according to Esther Ellis, the territorial epidemiologist. “We’re the only place giving test results back in 24 hours,” she said.
One exception to the crisis unfolding on U.S. islands: American Samoa, an archipelago in the Pacific, remains the only territory or state in the country without a single confirmed case.
In other news from around the United States:
Protesters flooded the Idaho State Capitol in Boise this week, many of them without wearing masks, to express frustration during a special legislative session called to address voting and liability laws amid the pandemic. Among the demonstrators was Ammon Bundy, once the leader of an armed takeover of an Oregon wildlife refuge, who was arrested on Tuesday by Idaho State Police after refusing to leave the space.
A cluster of coronavirus cases in rural Maine that has been linked to a wedding reception held in early August in the town of Millinocket has spread to a county jail elsewhere in the state, infecting 18 inmates and employees, according to the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention.
Kim Jong-un acknowledges ‘shortcomings’ in North Korea’s fight against Covid-19.
North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, has urged his government to eliminate “shortcomings” and “defects” in its battle against Covid-19 and to brace for a typhoon that is approaching the Korean Peninsula, state media reported on Wednesday.
Mr. Kim convened the ruling Workers’ Party’s Political Bureau and its Executive Policy Council on Tuesday, a week after making a rare admission that his five-year economic plan had faltered in the face of international sanctions, the coronavirus and recent flood damage. North Korea plans to hold a party congress in January to chart a new five-year economic plan.
During this week’s meetings, Mr. Kim cited “facts about some shortcomings in state emergency anti-epidemic work” and ordered active measures “to overcome the defects urgently,” the North’s official Korean Central News Agency reported on Wednesday, without elaborating.
North Korea has reported no coronavirus infections, but outside experts are skeptical, citing the country’s decrepit public health system and its proximity to China, where the virus was first detected.
Last week, South Korea’s National Intelligence Service told lawmakers in Seoul that the North’s fear of the virus had deepened since July, forcing the authorities to tighten travel in and out of Pyongyang, the North’s capital, and western and southern provinces.
The South Korean spy agency also said that the North’s foreign currency reserves had diminished as United Nations sanctions and the pandemic slashed its exports to China, its main trading partner, according to lawmakers who were briefed by the agency. Budget constraints have so far forced Mr. Kim to scale back his construction projects and reduce his military’s summer field exercises by up to 65 percent, they said.
Another strain on the North’s economy has been an unusually long monsoon season that caused extensive damage to farmland earlier this month. A fresh storm, Typhoon Bavi, is now expected to hit later this week, raising fears that back-to-back natural disasters could wreak further economic havoc.
The United States Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service estimated this month that about six in ten North Koreans are food-insecure in 2020.
In other news from around the world:
Days before classes are set to resume in Britain, the government on Tuesday reversed its advice that students in high schools in England should not wear face masks. In areas where local lockdowns are in place, students and staff members will be required to wear masks in communal areas with the exception of classrooms, where the government said “protective measures already mean the risks are lower.” In cities and towns where restrictions are not as tight, the decision whether to require masks will be left to school principals. After a U-turn on grading students’ exam results earlier this month, the new rules on mask wearing are another abrupt change in policy from Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government. Britain’s education secretary said the revision came after the World Health Organization changed its advice.
Reporting was contributed by Katrin Bennhold, Alexander Burns, Choe Sang-Hun, Mike Ives, Jonathan Martin, Patricia Mazzei, Heather Murphy, Simon Romero, Anna Schaverien, Sheryl Gay Stolberg and Katherine J. Wu.