Hundreds of thousands of South Korean students returned to school on Wednesday as educational establishments started reopening after a coronavirus delay of more than two months.
Students lined up for temperature checks and were given sanitisers to wash their hands as they entered school premises while teachers greeted them with smiles and occasional elbow bumps.
“It’s really exciting to meet my friends and teachers face to face, but we have to strictly follow the disinfection guidelines,” said Oh Chang-hwa, student president of Kyungbock High School in Seoul.
“I am very worried but it’s still nice to see them again,” Oh told AFP.
South Korea endured one of the worst early outbreaks of the virus — at one point the second-worst hit nation after mainland China — prompting officials to delay the reopening of schools in early March.
But it appears to have brought its outbreak under control thanks to an extensive “trace, test and treat” programme.
Around 440,000 final-year students, who will in December take the university entrance exam that is crucial in the education-obsessed country, are the first to return to schools, with other years following in stages over the next several weeks.
Inside the school buildings, students are asked to wipe their desks and sit apart according to social distancing guidelines, with some classes setting up partitions between desks.
But 66 schools in Incheon, near Seoul, were closed soon after re-opening and their students sent back home after two pupils were diagnosed with the virus, a spokesman at the Incheon Metropolitan City Office of Education said.
The episode illustrates the challenge of reopening schools while at the same time seeking to prevent transmission of the virus.
“Concerns over small infection clusters still remain and no one can predict what kind of situation will arise at schools,” education minister Yoo Eun-hae said.
The education ministry began operating a 24-hour emergency situation room this week, Yoo said, adding that any schools that report fresh infections will be shut immediately.
While final-year students are required to come to school every day, younger pupils will shift between online and offline classes to ensure school buildings are not overcrowded.
Thousands of schools reopened throughout France on Tuesday as the government eases its coronavirus lockdown rules despite some fears of a second waves of infections.
According to official figures there were 348 new COVID-19 deaths on Tuesday, bringing the national total to 26,991.
Primary and nursery schools reopened however, with teachers wearing face masks and the children’s chairs separated to avoid spreading the disease.
For Gregory Bouvier, headmaster of a nursery school in Rennes, northwest France, it was all a bit “surreal”.
“It’s not part of a nursery school’s DNA to have the children spaced apart from each other remaining at their desks and not able to share things,” he told AFP.
Education Minister Jean-Michel Blanquer hailed the reopening, which will be rolled out gradually throughout the country, including Paris schools on Thursday, before some secondary schools resume lessons next week.
To ease the fears of parents concerned that the virus remains just a sneeze away, the government has given them the choice to allow their children to return to school or remain under lockdown at home.
Unions have criticised the decision to reopen the schools calling it “premature”.
Some scientists and parliamentary deputies have also questioned the decision.
France began easing its two-month lockdown on Monday, with residents able venture outdoors without filling in a permit for the first time in nearly eight weeks and some shops reopening their doors.
But officials are keeping an anxious eye on events in Germany and South Korea which have reimposed some restrictions as virus cases rose after they eased lockdown measures.
Schools, kindergartens and universities will remain closed in Romania for the rest of the academic year because of the novel coronavirus pandemic, President Klaus Iohannis said Monday, with a re-opening planned for September.
“We gave up on the idea of reopening schools. It would be impossible, for example, for students to respect social distancing rules, so we are trying to avoid major risks,” Iohannis said during a televised speech.
An exception will be made for students in the final year of primary and secondary schools who, for ten days in June, will be allowed to attend classes in order to prepare for final exams.
Over the coming months, instead of going to school students will continue to take part in distance learning programmes.
Education Minister Monica Anisie decided last week that online classes be made compulsory, a measure criticised by students’ associations.
“Hundreds of thousands of students don’t have access to digital instruments and cannot take part in online classes,” the National Council of Students said in a statement, calling the measure “discriminatory”.
Romania is one of the poorest countries in the European Union, with 38 percent of children at risk of social exclusion and poverty, according to Eurostat.
The country has so far reported 11,339 infections of the new coronavirus, and 631 deaths.
Two months after it was brought in, the country’s state of emergency will be lifted on May 15, when restrictions on movement will end, but wearing a face mask will become mandatory on public transport and in other enclosed public spaces.
Iraq on Sunday imposed a total nationwide lockdown until March 28 to fight the novel coronavirus, as the number of cases grew and the death toll climbed to 20.
Most of Iraq’s 18 provinces had so far imposed their own local curfews but the new measures would include the whole of the country, according to a new decision by the government’s crisis cell.
Schools, universities and other gathering places would remain closed, as would the country’s multiple international airports, it said in a statement seen by AFP.
Many had feared a potential influx of cases from neighbouring Iran, where 1,685 people have died after contracting the COVID-19 respiratory illness, according to the latest official toll Sunday.
Iraq first shut its 1,500-kilometre border with Iran about a month ago and deployed troops to enforce the decision.
It has logged a total of 233 coronavirus cases and recorded 20 deaths, but there are concerns that many more are going undetected as only 2,000 people of the country’s 40-million population have been tested so far.
Authorities have struggled to enforce previous curfews.
On Saturday, tens of thousands of Shiite pilgrims turned out in Baghdad and other cities in the south of the country to commemorate the death of a revered Muslim imam.
And Moqtada Sadr, a populist cleric with a cult-like following, has continued to hold mass prayers in his hometown of Kufa south of Baghdad and in the capital’s densely-populated Sadr City.
Health Minister Jaafar Allawi sent Sadr a personal letter in a bid to convince him to call off his weekly prayers, which present an enormous contamination risk.
Allawi has expressed fears that a wider outbreak would overwhelm the country’s health system, which already faces shortages in equipment, medicine and staff after decades of conflict and little investment by national authorities.
Last week, he said he had not been granted his request for $5 million in emergency funds from the federal government.
Iraq is OPEC’s second-biggest crude producer, and falling oil prices have put the country in a bind as more than 90 percent of its state budget is funded by oil revenues.
Britain announced Wednesday it would be closing schools in the coming days to stem the spread of coronavirus, as the death toll topped 100 and Londoners braced for tougher measures to tackle the outbreak.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson had held off following the lead of other European countries in shutting schools, because of the impact it would have on the workforce.
But as the outbreak spreads and the death toll reached 104, up from 71 in a day, he said schools would be closed indefinitely later this week.
“After schools shut their gates from Friday afternoon, they will remain closed,” he told his daily news conference, without giving a date for their re-opening.
Exceptions will be made for key workers — including healthcare staff, police and delivery drivers — and for the most vulnerable children.
Johnson earlier this week advised people to work from home and avoid unnecessary social contact and travel, warning the infection rate was starting to spike.
On Wednesday he said this was having an effect but repeated advice for people with symptoms to self-isolate for between one and two weeks, depending on circumstances.
“Everyone must follow the advice to protect themselves and their families, but also, more importantly to protect the wider public,” he said.
Johnson added that “we will not hesitate to bring forward further and faster measures.”
Speculation is rife that London in particular could soon be subject to more draconian measures, as the capital records the most number of cases.
“We know London is ahead of the rest of us so we may see more stringent measures than even those that we have announced so far being taken,” Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said in Edinburgh earlier.
The government will on Thursday introduce legislation giving it emergency powers to deal with the outbreak, including to close premises and restrict gatherings.
– Parliamentary hotspot –
Lawmakers were earlier told to stay away from Johnson’s weekly question time in parliament amid warnings that Westminster is a particularly infectious area.
Some 25 MPs, including a cabinet minister, are already thought to have isolated themselves.
“There’s a lot of COVID-19 in Westminster,” tweeted epidemiologist Professor Neil Ferguson, a government adviser, as he announced that he had also developed symptoms.
MPs will gather on Thursday however to debate new emergency legislation to deal with the coronavirus outbreak, which ministers hope to push through within days.
The government says its powers will only be used when “absolutely necessary” and the bill has support from opposition parties.
But some MPs voiced concern at the sweeping nature and duration of the proposals, and the effect on civil liberties.
– Rent support –
Johnson’s government has come under pressure to do more to tackle the outbreak of COVID-19, given the tough lockdowns imposed in other European countries.
But he insisted all action was driven by the science, adding: “We’re going to do the right measures at the right time.”
So far Britain has around 2,600 cases, but chief scientific adviser Patrick Vallance this week warned that 55,000 Britons could have the virus at a “reasonable” estimate.
The new social distancing advice sparked warnings that many businesses, particularly in the hospitality industry, could go bust.
The FTSE 100 slumped again Wednesday, dropping as much as 5.0 percent in morning trade, while the pound hit its lowest level since 1985 against the dollar, touching $1.1828.
Finance minister Rishi Sunak on Tuesday announced a package of support for businesses, including government-backed loans of at least £330 billion ($395 billion, 360 billion euros).
On Wednesday, Johnson also promised legislation to protect individuals unable to pay their rent because of job losses caused by the crisis to avoid evictions.
In other developments:
– the government said it was working to increase the number of people in hospital being tested for COVID-19 to 25,000 a day and ensure frontline health workers get the protective kit they need.
– Johnson said there was a “massive effort” to build enough ventilators to treat the worst-hit patients, after concern about a shortage.
– Supermarkets, whose supplies have been hit by panic-buying, said they would safeguard supplies for the elderly and most vulnerable, including dedicated opening times only for older customers.
– the 50th Glastonbury music festival became the latest casualty of the outbreak, with this year’s event pushed back to next year.
President Emmanuel Macron on Thursday announced schools in France would close indefinitely from next week to curb the spread of the coronavirus, also urging people over 70 to stay at home.
In an address to the nation on the fight against COVID-19 which has already killed 61 people and infected almost 2,900 in France, Macron made clear that it could no longer be business as usual.
Creches, schools and universities would close from Monday “until further notice”, Macron said, describing the novel coronavirus as France’s most serious health crisis for a century.
But the president also announced that nationwide local elections scheduled for Sunday will not be postponed.
“We are just at the beginning of this crisis,” Macron said.
“In spite of all our efforts to break it, this virus is continuing to propagate and to accelerate.”
From Monday, “and until further notice, all creches, schools, middle schools, high schools and universities will be closed,” he said.
Macron asked all people older than 70, those who suffer chronic diseases, respiratory troubles and the handicapped, “to stay at home” if possible.
As for the elections, Macron said he had consulted scientists and other experts who were of the opinion that “there is nothing to prevent the French, even the most vulnerable, from going to the ballot box.”
The French president said Europe will have to react “fast, and strongly” to “relaunch” the economy in the wake of the epidemic, adding that any steps to close borders will have to be jointly decided “at the European level”.
He said the measures against the virus were needed so that “we continue to win time against this epidemic” which he emphasised “has no passport”.
Air pollution forced schools to close on Sunday in parts of Iran including Tehran, as the capital lay under a thick cloud of smog considered hazardous to health.
The pollution level in the capital was “unhealthy for sensitive groups” and officials warned the young, elderly and people with respiratory illnesses to stay indoors, with sporting activities suspended.
The decision to shut schools in the capital was announced late Saturday by deputy governor Mohammad Taghizadeh, after a meeting of an emergency committee on air pollution.
“All of (Tehran) province’s schools except for Firuzkuh and Damavand counties are closed for Sunday,” he said, quoted by state news agency IRNA.
Schools in the capital will close on Monday, the third day of the Iranian working week, he added later in a state TV interview.
An “odd-even” traffic scheme based on vehicles’ registration numbers was imposed to restrict traffic in the capital, IRNA reported.
Trucks were banned outright in Tehran province.
Taghizadeh added that all activities at Tehran province’s numerous sand quarries would also be halted.
Schools were also closed in the northern province of Alborz and in the central cities of Qom and Arak, IRNA reported.
“We are forced to live with and tolerate this situation,” a Tehrani dentist, giving her name as Iran, told AFP.
“I think no one does their job properly in this country, be it the authorities or the people,” she added, fumbling with a white mask, worn commonly on the capital’s polluted days.
A grey cloud hung over Tehran on Sunday, obstructing the view of the mountains overlooking the city to the north.
Average airborne concentration of the finest and most hazardous particles (PM2.5) was at 145 microgrammes per cubic metre for the 24 hours until Sunday noon, according to government website air.tehran.ir.
That is close to six times the World Health Organization’s recommended maximum of 25 microgrammes per m3.
Tehran citizens AFP talked to blamed the authorities for rampant construction and lack of public transport diversification, leading to continuous pollution in the capital.
“As long as officials sit in cars with grey-tinted glass, they don’t realise there’s air pollution. Once they sit in cars like mine, they’ll know the air is polluted and something must be done,” said Mohammad, a taxi driver.
He said the solution is the “electrification of public transport” such as buses and taxis and expanding Tehran’s usually crammed metro.
For the Tehrani Reza, the main suspect is the municipality because of “the construction permits given without considering that there must be green spaces, too.”
To them, “money comes before citizens’ health,” Reza said.
The problem worsens in Tehran during winter, when cold air and a lack of wind traps hazardous smog over the city for days on end, a phenomenon known as thermal inversion.
Most of the city’s pollution is caused by heavy vehicles, motorbikes, refineries and power plants, according to a World Bank report released last year.
“We can’t do anything but wait for wind to blow or rain to fall,” said student Bardia Danaie.