What twelve nations/regions are doing to get students safely back to schools in times of COVID-19

Kavya Narayanan
·11-min read

To open or not to open? Schools around the world have tried to make exactly this decision amid pressures from parents, school authorities and health authorities during the coronavirus lockdown.

There are so many variables involved: The wellbeing of students and teachers, the education and social needs of school-going children, the freedom and sanity of working parents to attend to their jobs without needing to worry about their kids being around, and more.

Given the difficulty of the situation around the world, various countries are in different stages of planning and reopening schools. These decisions have been made by national or state governments along with local and school authorities.

More than a billion students are still out of school due to nationwide school closures, a 24 August >UNICEF report said. "We are slowly seeing an increasing number of children return to the classroom."

Of the 134 countries that have shut down schools, 59 of them (around 44 percent) have already reopened schools or plan to very soon, and 105 (roughly 80 percent) have decided on a reopening date as of 24 August 2020. In some countries, the added complication of active COVID-19 community transmission complicates things €" in India and the US, for example.

Here's a look at what various countries are doing to get kids back in school safely.

Southeast Asia

In India, Nepal and Bangladesh, schools remain shut, with some schools (mostly private schools) taking classes online.

As per the Indian government's Unlock 4 guidelines, students of Classes 9 to 12 can visit schools on a voluntary basis starting 21 September to consult teachers and get guidance on their courses. As schools partially reopen on 21 September, only half the teaching and non-teaching staff have been called to schools at a time. School for students in all other classes will remain closed till 30 September.

In Sri Lanka, the government has allowed schools with no reported cases of COVID-19 to reopen partially, for grades that are writing national examinations this year.

South Korea

In South Korea (more so than in India), the emphasis on academics is widely-known, with most kids commonly looking at 12-hour school days. The country deferred opening schools five times over a two-month period, as per a TIME magazine report.

A phased reboot was rolled out, starting with high-school seniors on 20 May. As per the plan, middle-school and elementary school kids were also to return to schools starting 3 June. But just days after reopening, cases of COVID-19 among students in Seoul prompted hundreds of schools to close again, or delay reopening by a few more weeks.

At schools that are open, temperature checks are required at entrances and students required to wear masks, socially distance and frequently wash their hands. Some schools have instructed students to come in on alternate days. Others have adopted a hybrid face-to-face and online approach to taking lessons.

Students having lunch with transparent dividers separating them at the canteen of an elementary school in South Korea, in May. Image: Twitter/Jeff Ballinger
Students having lunch with transparent dividers separating them at the canteen of an elementary school in South Korea, in May. Image: Twitter/Jeff Ballinger

Students having lunch with transparent dividers separating them at the canteen of an elementary school in South Korea, in May. Image: Twitter/Jeff Ballinger

Denmark

After a month in lockdown, Denmark became the first Western country to reopen its schools on 15 April. Kids between the ages of two and 12 years returning to school were sectioned off into "micro groups" of 12 (aka "protective bubbles"). Each group came to school at a different time slot, ate lunch separately and have designated zones in the playground. Students had to wash their hands every two hours, but face masks were not made mandatory. Classrooms were rearranged so that desks were placed two meters apart, and all the study material was sanitized twice a day. Classes were also held outside whenever possible, and for a change, parents were not allowed on school property.

These measures seem to have worked well, and no cases of transmission in schools have been reported by authorities. This can also be attributed to the fact that before Denmark opened schools, the country had a relatively low number of COVID-19 cases and deaths €" they took early and decisive action in imposing lockdown measures efficiently.

After a five-week-long investigation in May, experts proceeded with caution and implemented similar precautions in middle and primary schools. As of 10 August, primary school children and teachers have also begun their new school year.

Japan

After a summer vacation that was cut short to make up for missed classes during the early months of the pandemic, some schools in Japan reopened.

Parents are expected to check their child's temperature every morning and enter the results in a health report that teachers check once they reach class, according to a Washington Post report. At one of the schools, these temperature checks are one in a 28-point plan to minimise risk of COVID-19 transmission in schools.

Children in Japan are attending school on alternate days, so that half the desks in classrooms are left empty to make distancing easier. All students and teachers are required to wears masks, except during lunch time, when students eat at their desks, facing forward, and in silence, the report adds.

Beijing's Yonsei University students attend classes with masks on. Image Credit: Loyola Marymount University Press
Beijing's Yonsei University students attend classes with masks on. Image Credit: Loyola Marymount University Press

Beijing's Yonsei University students attend classes with masks on. Image Credit: Loyola Marymount University Press

Sweden

Sweden's COVID-19 strategy is among the most controversial in the world. It decided to leave much of society open, including primary schools. This is likely what contributed to five times as many people in Sweden dying of the coronavirus as that in Denmark, Norway and Finland combined. Some 95 percent of fatal cases were patients over the age of 60. In May, a Science report citing a scan of incidents in Swedish newspapers clearly shows that school outbreaks did occur.

Swedish health authorities say they have managed to stabilise the spread of COVID-19, with citizens taking quarantine and social distancing measures seriously. However, June-July was around the time many schools and officers closed for summer vacation. Swedish law says children under the age of 12 can't be home alone without supervision. This means that the fate of kindergarten and middle school kids largely rests in the hands of the country's workforce. It is yet to be seen how the country will strategise its post-summer reopening of society and schools.

"It will be very difficult to achieve any kind of really clear-cut answer as to what was right and what was wrong," Sweden's top epidemiologist Anders Tegnell >told the Observer. "We're talking years into the future before we can get any kind of consensus on how to deal with this in the best possible way."

Spain

So far, the Spanish government has left the choice to parents and students to attend schools on a voluntary basis. However, by September, it has planned for all students to return to school, with guidelines adapted to suit the situation in each of Spain's 17 independent regions. Spanish officials are adapting their plans before schools reopen starting 4 September. Some 11,000 additional teachers are being hired to monitor younger students, makeshift classrooms are being staged in schoolyards and "bubbles" of 15 to 20 students are being made that can mix with each other but not with other bubbles or outsiders.

Students have been told to keep a distance of 1.5 metres or more between themselves. Younger children, on the other hand, will be divided into bubbles that won't have to distance themselves. Masks have not been made compulsory for younger children in these bubbles.

Masks will be compulsory for older students and teachers if distance of 1.5 m cannot be maintained, as well as students over the age of six who take the school bus.

Schools in Spain have been asked to prioritise outdoor activities, and to stagger start, finish and break times for all classes. Facilities also need to be cleaned at least once a day, and toilets cleaned thrice daily.

Belgium

Schools in Belgium plan to reopen with the start of the new academic year on 1 September. This comes after members of the country's COVID-19 paediatric task force said a normal return to school should be government's "number one priority."

As schools reopen, teachers and students above age 12 are required to wear masks. Along with basic hygiene measures such as frequent hand-washing and appropriate room ventilation, the country has also implemented a colour-coded scheme for how schools with operate under different scenarios €" based on the seriousness of the COVID-19 situation in Belgium. In all four scenarios, primary and elementary school will carry on throughout the country.

"In all case scenarios, kindergartens and primary schools will always remain open," Caroline Désir, education minister for Francophone schools in Belgium, >told The Brussels Times. "We will not close them down regardless of how the epidemic evolves."

As of 1 September, the plan recommends that students go to school four days a week, with distance-learning one day a week.

Pupils listen to a teacher wearing a mask in the classroom in a school in Helecine, Belgium on 1 September 2020, on the first day of school year amid the Covid-19 epidemic. AFP
Pupils listen to a teacher wearing a mask in the classroom in a school in Helecine, Belgium on 1 September 2020, on the first day of school year amid the Covid-19 epidemic. AFP

Pupils listen to a teacher wearing a mask in the classroom in a school in Helecine, Belgium on 1 September 2020, on the first day of school year amid the Covid-19 epidemic. AFP

Africa

Among African countries, six countries have reopened schools. Students in South Africa returned to classrooms one class after another class, after an early reopening resulted in new infections and schools were closed as a result. For any parents that don't want their children to attend school, the government has advised applying for home-schooling.

Kenya has closed its schools for the rest of 2020. Meanwhile, the Ugandan government plans to procure radios for villages to help poor families with remote learning.

France

Despite a sharp and recent spike in cases in France, the nation is sending millions of students back to school. This is to ensure that academic inequality among children doesn't widen due to the lockdown, and parents can return to their jobs, the government said.

Teachers, and students in middle- and high school are required to wear masks while moving between classes, and in and out of school. Teachers and schools authorities have been instructed to limit gatherings and only allow one-way movement in corridors. Cafeterias will also reopen to help children relying on subsidised hot meals for their nutrition, as per a report in the The Local.

Classrooms and school premises should be aired "as often as possible and for a duration of at least 15 minutes each time", the report added. Frequent contact-points like door-knobs are to be regularly cleaned, dining hall tables after each meal, and large surfaces to be cleaned "at least once a day."

In addition, some Parisian schools are giving out free laptops for children, in case schools need to close against during the lockdown.

Italy

Some of the strictest lockdown measures in all of Europe were implemented in Italy, which saw schools shut down by March 2020. While lockdown measures began to slowly ease in May, schools still haven't reopening for teaching. The government intends for face-to-face teaching in schools to resume by 14 September, as per a BBC report.

Students are required to sit at least 1 m apart, and class sizes will be made smaller to accommodate the new guideline. Each class will be divided into subgroups, and classes will be staggered to avoid gatherings. All students and teachers are required to wear masks, and teachers are required to also wear a face shield, the report added.

Classes will be held outdoors as much as possible, if not in large spaces like theatres or museums. Lessons will also be spread over six days of the week, including Saturdays to include staggered class schedules.

Canada

The Canadian province of Quebec reopened several of its elementary schools in May, with strict distancing. It announced plans that children will be allowed to socialise freely in groups of six €" with each group staying a metre away from other groups of students and 2 metres away from teachers.

At least 53 students and teachers tested positive after many schools reopened in May, according to news reports, but officials believed many of those infections were contracted in the community. Classmates and teachers of an infected student were sent home for 14 days, while the rest of the school was sanitised, and classes carried on.

Netherlands

Primary and secondary schools in the Netherlands are resuming with regular school/teaching hours for students of all grades. The government has specified that >students will be exempt from attending school if they, or somebody they live with, is a high-risk candidate for COVID-19 (i.e. people with co-morbid health conditions, or contact with a COVID-19-positive indivdual).

Mainstays for COVID-19 prevention, like masks, have not been made compulsory in all schools, though >20 percent of schools have reportedly instructed their pupils to wear them anyway, NOS reported.

Schools have been instructed to ensure classrooms and corridors have high-functioning ventilation systems to limit the spread of airborne coronavirus indoors.

with inputs from agencies

Also See: Unlock 4.0: Schools to reopen for Classes 9 to 12 from 21 Sep on voluntary basis; Centre issues guidelines

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