Most European schools aren’t palaces. Schools have reopened anyway.

Anthony LaMesa
3 min readFeb 11, 2021

Yesterday, in an otherwise excellent article about Rhode Island reopening its schools, journalist Susan Dominus seemed to suggest that the hesitancy to reopen United States schools last fall — when schools across Europe reopened — was somewhat justified by conditions in our school buildings compared to other countries:

At the time, encouraging research in Sweden and China suggested the possibility of safety in schools, but it was hard to know whether those studies would be relevant to large American districts like Providence or Boston, with their aging infrastructure, their relatively crowded schools, their narrow stairwells and often-inoperable windows.

A consistent part of the anti-school reopening discourse in the U.S. has been that European schools were able to reopen because they are well-maintained and uncrowded in contrast with dilapidated and overcrowded U.S. schools. The reality is that Europe has some very nice schools and many not-so-nice schools — still, most of them have reopened.

Even social democratic Sweden has crowded classrooms. Here’s a lower secondary school — what Americans would call a middle school — in Gothenburg:

And what about social distancing? “The students are not allowed to touch one another, but there’s no way we can stay at arm’s length at all times. The classrooms haven’t suddenly grown larger, nor have the groups become smaller. Pupils and teachers are just sitting as close together as usual. I simply don’t see how we could change this.”

He opens the door of a classroom where an English lesson is in progress The students are seated two by two. Teacher Eva Brown’s desk is right in front of the first row of students; there is no place to move further back. She stands with her back literally to the wall.

In Italy, which has kept primary and lower secondary schools open all year, and recently reopened high schools for hybrid-instruction across the country, so-called “chicken coop” classrooms — how Italians refer to their notoriously overcrowded classrooms — have not been eliminated. An Italian principal discusses the problem:

“Not even the Covid emergency has meant that our multi-year request to abolish chicken coop classes has been accepted. We find ourselves a few days before the deadline to deliver the staff of the classes for the next school year with the old parameter of 27 students per…

Anthony LaMesa

Some thoughts on reopening America’s public schools.