Young children in Britain are usually being made to keep socially distant from each other at school. But in the Netherlands schoolchildren are, literally and figuratively, much closer.

10 June 2020 By Paul Martin

In Dutch schools, for pupils under 12, there is no government requirement for social distancing between the children. In Britain, where Reception Classes (age 5s) and Year Six Classes (age 11s) began on June 11, there is.

There are parental restrictions too — even in British nursery schools. A nursery in London insisted that a parent wishing to bring a two-year-old for the first time could not even come inside to settle the child in — even though the parent promised to stay two metres away from everyone. Those parents have told they have now found a nursery for their child that does allow his sort of parental settling-in.

Have the Dutch have got it right, and the British got it wrong?

The evidence is starkly clear: children under the age of ten have never been shown in any scientific study to have passed on coronavirus to any adult.

In a report published in April on the Don’t Forget the Bubbles paediatric blog, in partnership with the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health (RCPCH), an analysis of existing research into the effects of Covid-19 on children showed how low the risk is of children infecting adults with Covid-19.

It noted that a joint commission by China and the World Health Organisation (WHO) “could not recall episodes during contact tracing where transmission occurred from a child to an adult”.

There have been five studies exploring this topic, but more research is needed, the report said.

It appears therefore that little children catching the virus at school, then at home infecting their parents or older siblings, is an extremely remote possibility.

Against this tiny risk, there is the need for decent and proper schooling for small children. My five-year-old granddaughter went back to school yesterday. Is it educative for a child of that age, or indeed any children under the age of (say) ten, to sit two metres from all their friends?

Does this amount to an unnecessary restriction of the younger children?

It certainly creates, literally, a barrier to interaction and the kind of learning that younger children in particular need.

Does it, as an educational psychotherapist told, tend to make them, in essence, afraid of behaving like – children?

Dutch schools reopened to all pupils on 11 May and since then there have been no reported cases of Covid-19 infecting the schoolchildren, let alone of them bringing it back to infect their parents or older siblings. (That country’s proportional rate of Covid-19 infection and its Covid-19 rate of death per size of population are not much different from those in the UK.)

Linda van Druijten leads De Boomhut and OBS De Klaproos, respectively a primary school and a special-educational-needs school, in Arnhem. She explains:

We are allowed half groups – our classes have between 28 and 32 pupils, so on a given day we can have groups of 15 children in each class.

Unlike in the UK, the Dutch government told us that the children do not have to socially distance from each other, as we can see the rates of infections for under-12s are so low – there is such a small risk in them being in contact with each other.

So the children can play and touch each other; they can have normal friendships.

But the children do have to be 1.5 metres from the adults when in school, and the adults have to be 1.5 metres from each other. This is not always easy.

Those over 7 years old understand it all, and are pretty good at it. And we have very little reason to break that distance. But with the younger children? It’s not always possible.

At the beginning, my teachers said to me, if a child fell down and cuts [his or her] knee, we would have to call an ambulance so people in proper protective equipment could assist that child. But we thought about it very long and hard, and we agreed we would pick up the child, and break the social distance.

And if a child cries, you can’t explain why you cannot comfort them – we decided we would comfort that child.

The risks in both instances are so very low that we felt as a staff group that this was something we were willing to do.

It was the same with masks. At first, many staff members wanted to wear masks. But we discussed it over three or four weeks and we decided that we actually didn’t want to do that. If we wear masks, the children cannot see our expressions and none of us wanted to teach like that.

For all these things, we have a word for it in Dutch that means “safe but not safe”. Yes, the precautions are advisable, but they do not really keep us fully safe.

We have had no substantial absence problems. Less than 1 per cent of the children did not come in, so almost all our parents brought their children back into school. We have a Group A and a Group B – half our pupils are in school and the other half continue remote learning, and they rotate across the week, one day on, one day off.

We did have some teachers who were anxious. They were worried about their vulnerable relatives, for example. For some of our anxious staff who had vulnerable family members, we reduced their pupil groups – we explained to parents that this was better than no teacher at all. We did this in our special education school.

As for the life of the school, learning is happening and the children are adapting. We started with very thorough routines. Handwashing, disinfectant, constant cleaning of door handles and toilets. After the first week, though, we relaxed. It is important that we are aware, but not to get too paralysed by the anxiety. We take it seriously, we remain watchful of symptoms, but we get on with our job; we are teachers and we want to teach!

What is clear is that all the teachers are happy to be back. They say that they don’t feel like teachers unless they are in the classroom with their pupils. That we can now do that is the most important thing – like the bubbles, it helps us to focus and gets our mind away from the fact that things are still not quite normal.”