LONDON — England took a high-stakes gamble when it sent millions of students back to school last month with neither vaccines nor a requirement to wear face masks, even as the coronavirus continued to course through the population.
On Tuesday, the country’s Education Department issued its latest report card on how the plan is working: 186,000 students were absent from school on Sept. 30 with confirmed or suspected cases of the virus, 78 percent more than the number reported on Sept. 16, and the highest number since the pandemic began.
Yet to hear many parents tell it, the bigger risk would have been to force the students to keep wearing masks or, worse, to keep them home.
“It’s important for kids,” said Morgane Kargadouris, who was picking up her daughter recently at Notting Hill Preparatory School in northwest London, where none of the children wear masks. “So much of what they learn is through expressions and through contact they have with people.”
Such sentiments are not unusual in a country that has shrugged off social-distancing rules and made an aggressive rollout of vaccines and a swift return to normalcy the twin cornerstones of its pandemic response. But they are striking in a debate that has played out differently across the globe, as parents struggle to balance the risks of a potentially deadly disease with the costs of keeping children at home or in classrooms where masks and other protective measures are required.
Defenders of England’s laissez faire approach say it has allowed a large majority of students to return to a normal school experience; critics warn that the children are being exposed to unacceptable risks. With cases rising fastest among those 10 to 19, the English instinct to just “get on with it” is being put to the test.
For more skeptical parents, the abandonment of masks and other measures — which were required in secondary schools through last spring — has been disquieting, even if few schools have been hit with the kind of outbreak that infects an entire class. A few parents even launched a social media campaign to pull their children out of school for a day recently to protest the lack of protections.
“It’s gone from one extreme of fear mongering to nothing,” said Alex Matthew, whose daughter attends Colville Primary School in London.
Government officials insist their hands-off approach is vindicated by the numbers. Even with the large number of Covid-related absences, 90 percent of the 8.4 million students in state-supported schools are in class, and the schools are functioning close to normally. The majority of absences are because of reasons other than Covid. It is also unclear how many, if any, of the cases reported on Sept. 30 were also included in those reported on Sept. 16.
Britain’s daily case numbers are running several thousand lower than when schools opened in early September. This suggests that, thanks to the wide distribution of vaccines in the adult population, the reopening of schools has not driven a major new surge. And England is not alone among an increasing number of countries that are seeking to live with the pandemic.
But critics liken England’s policy to a kind of national chickenpox party. A small number of infected children, they said, will have lingering effects from Long Covid. While the percentage of children who end up hospitalized is modest, it still adds up to more than 9,000 since the pandemic began — and some die.
Moreover, the encouraging trends highlighted by the government obscure some troubling signs. Infections are rising rapidly among school-age children, most of whom remain unprotected because England lagged other countries in giving vaccines to people under 16. About 1 percent of people 10 to 19 are being infected every week, according to epidemiologists.
“It’s pretty fraught because teachers and school leaders are juggling so many problems,” said Geoff Barton, the general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, which represents school administrators. “If you unleash millions of kids to go back to school,” he said, “you will see a rise in cases.”
One reason that Britain can take such risks, scientists say, is that nearly all adults over 65 — a high-risk population — have been fully vaccinated, meaning that there is less chance they will be infected. In parts of the United States with much lower vaccination rates, the consequences would most likely be worse.
In addition, the government suggests that staff and students at high schools in England take rapid antigen tests twice a week, mostly at home, which can identify some asymptomatic cases. In England, the tests are free and easy to get. Some testing has also been done at schools.
But England’s approach on masks is in stark contrast to that of the United States. In America, masks are widely required in schools, but they are also the subject of bitter political battles between pro- and anti-masking forces, and between state and federal authorities.
About three-quarters of the 200 largest school districts in the United States require masks, according to Burbio, a data service that monitors school closures. And two studies published recently by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention provided evidence that masks protect children in school from the coronavirus, even when community rates are high and the contagious Delta variant is circulating.
In England, schools are not even required to inform the families of classmates if a student tests positive — a policy that keeps disruptions to a minimum but puts other children at risk, according to critics. While some Conservative Party lawmakers are hostile to masks and other restrictions, the issue is far less politicized than in the United States.
“It isn’t seen as a totem of individual liberty as it is in the States,” Mr. Barton said. “That isn’t to say that some people here don’t hate the bloody things.”
England’s ambivalence about masks goes back to the earliest days of the pandemic, when scientists and public health officials said the evidence of their effectiveness in curbing the spread of the virus was dubious. Those experts later reversed course and encouraged people to wear them in confined spaces.
But in July, Prime Minister Boris Johnson lifted rules mandating the wearing of masks indoors as part of a widespread easing of restrictions that the London tabloids called “Freedom Day.” Mask wearing, even in places where it remains compulsory, like the London Underground, has declined steadily since then.
England’s discarding of masks in schools puts it at odds with Italy, Spain and France, though France recently announced it would lift the mask requirement for primary schools in areas with low infection rates.
England’s policy reflects a long-held view that most children shake off the effects of Covid quickly and that relatively few of them require hospitalization. That is the same argument that initially led the government to resist the vaccination of children younger than 16. It has now moved to vaccinate anyone 12 and older, which officials said would quell the rise of infections in younger age groups.
While Britain’s infection rates have stayed high — cases hit 33,869 on Tuesday — hospital admissions and death rates have begun dropping.
Some experts also argue that children transmit the virus less readily.
“Yes, of course, children transmit, but the level at which they transmit is much less than adult transmission,” said Devi Sridhar, the head of the global public health program at the University of Edinburgh. “You rarely see an entire classroom get infected.”
Professor Sridhar said she supported the use of masks in secondary schools because it furthered the goal of making school a safe environment, but she noted that in children under 12, the arguments that masks hindered speech and social development were persuasive.
The problem, critics said, is that many people who oppose masks in classrooms also tend to oppose other mitigation measures, like improved ventilation or smaller teaching bubbles.
“It can’t be a dichotomy between requiring masks and allowing children to become infected,” said Deepti Gurdasani, a clinical epidemiologist at Queen Mary University in London. “It’s hugely irresponsible to expose kids to these risks.”
Then, too, scientists said, Black and Asian children are more likely to be hospitalized from the disease, much as Black and ethnic minority adults are statistically more likely to have severe illnesses or die from it.
“What we need to keep in mind is that children, much like adults, are not all in the same boat when they face the pandemic,” said Zubaida Haque, a member of the Independent Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies, a coalition of experts that has been highly critical of the government’s pandemic response.
For some, the time has come to act. Lisa Diaz, a mother from the northwest of England, campaigned on social media for the recent school strike to send a message to the government that they do not agree with its approach. “These are our children,” she said. “They are not numbers on a sheet.”
For other parents, however, the instinct is simply to say good riddance.
“I think the assumption is that everyone, certainly the parents, are all double vaccinated at this point,” said Robert Loynes, who was picking up his daughter from school recently in London. “I haven’t seen teachers wearing masks, but I also am fine with that. I don’t expect them to, so it kind of feels back to normal, which in my mind is a good thing.”