The day I visited St. Thomas the Apostle School in Peckham, South London, a new shutdown was announced for Britain’s capital. But the comprehensive—a public high-school, in American parlance—was open. It was freezing: Doors were propped open for ventilation. Pupils chattered in the playground while wearing face coverings emblazoned with the school logo. For all that, the experience felt surprisingly normal. In-person attendance has been at more than 90 percent for most of the term. Out front, some boys were playing a very serious game of soccer. Others messed around with basketballs.
St. Thomas is the sort of school that, in the United States, has largely offered hybrid or remote teaching. A study by the Center on Reinventing Public Education estimated that only 8 percent of U.S. urban school districts had returned to full in-person instruction in November. Outside the inner cities, only 22 percent of U.S. suburban school districts were running in-person schooling, and only 64 percent of rural districts.
Across the U.K., by contrast, schools—having closed in March—started reopening in June. After the summer break, all children could go back. The U.K. has struggled with the pandemic: COVID-19 has killed 73,000 people so far, a greater loss relative to the country’s population than in the U.S. Ministers made repeated missteps, including subsidizing eat-in restaurant meals over the summer. But the average teenager in England has missed only about 6 days of in-person school during the fall. And in this regard, Britain is deeply European. Since September, according to the Blavatnik School of Government policy tracker, seven U.S. states have closed schools for a long spell while not forcing the closure of other workplaces. No European state has done so. School closures have remained the last resort.