It's class time again across Europe, virus or no

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Pupils sit in a classroom on the first day back to school at Charles Dickens Primary School in London, Tuesday Sept. 1, 2020. Hundreds of thousands of British schoolchildren are heading back to classrooms, with the country watching nervously to see if reopening schools brings a surge in coronavirus infections. Tuesday marks the start of term for about 40% of schools in England and Wales, with the rest reopening in the coming days. (Dominic Lipinski/PA via AP)

PARIS – Tugging on their masks or dashing to hug long-unseen friends, millions of children returned to school across Europe and beyond Tuesday in a mass experiment aimed at bridging inequalities and resuscitating economies — despite the persistent pandemic.

The virus threat lurked in the shadows as children kissed their parents goodbye in France, shyly greeted their teachers in Israel, settled into spaced-out desks in England, and raised their hands in Russia.

While acknowledging “a bit of fear,” Jerome Continent brought his first-grader Baptiste to school Tuesday anyway in the Paris suburb of Roissy-en-Brie, where the buzz of first-day excitement was even more intense than usual after the coronavirus upended the previous school year.

“I know we are being careful,” he said. “The children also have to live.”

With France reporting thousands of new infections daily — more than any of its neighbors — all French schoolchildren 11 and over must wear masks all day, recess and music class included. Similar rules are in place in Balkan countries, while other countries are more lax about masks. Some classrooms look starkly different from previous years, with plastic shields around desks and virus warning signs plastered everywhere.

While many U.S. school districts started class online only and others introduced a mix of online and face-to-face learning, in-person class is the norm as Europe goes back to school. Governments are trying to show that life goes on despite a virus that has infected at least 25 million people worldwide and killed more than 800,000.

France's prime minister sat with elementary school children at a school Tuesday, and the president wished kids well in an Instagram video. In Britain, Education Secretary Gavin Williamson sent an open letter to parents saying school “really is the best place for them to be. Nothing can match being in a classroom with a real teacher to inspire them and their friends to share their discoveries.”

Hundreds of thousands of British schoolchildren are heading back to classrooms, with parents facing fines if they refuse to send their kids back. Schools have introduced measures to reduce contact between children, such as staggering break times and keeping pupils in “bubbles” with their class or year group.