According to UNESCO, 12 countries have reopened schools so far, 52 have set the date for reopening during this academic year, and seven plan to reopen in the next one. The majority of countries – 128 – have not announced any dates yet.
Going back to school looks different. For example, Denmark, which was the first country in Europe to reopen schools for its youngest students, is teaching many lessons outdoors and just five children are allowed on the playground at any one time; children in Taiwan are sitting at desks with homemade bright yellow plastic dividers; and schools in Japan are keeping windows open to ventilate classrooms. Even the traditional playground game of tag has had to change; in Denmark, children have created a game called shadow tag where they tag each other's shadow to stay 6ft apart.
While many countries have not set a date for reopening their schools, they are actively planning for a phased approach that focuses on health and safety. The world is gearing up for another new phase in education – and governments worldwide are being steered by new guidelines – The Framework for Reopening Schools – for the safe reopening of schools issued by UNESCO, UNICEF, WFP and World Bank last week.
Jaime Saavedra, World Bank Global Director for Education, said:
"Once schools begin to reopen, the priority becomes reintegrating students into school settings safely and in ways that allow learning to pick up again, especially for those who suffered the biggest learning losses. This is a critical moment as it is the launching pad for a new normal that should be more effective and equitable.
“To manage reopenings, schools will need to be logistically prepared with the teaching workforce ready. And they will need to have plans specifically for supporting learning recovery of the most disadvantaged students."
UNESCO’s framework advises schools to only reopen with clear physical distancing measures, including prohibiting activities that require large gatherings, staggering the start and close of the school day, staggering lunch and break times, moving some classes to temporary spaces or outdoors, and teaching lessons in shifts to reduce class size. As expected, schools must have protocols on hygiene measures, including handwashing, deep cleaning procedures for facilities, and safe food preparation. And there should be clear guidance on procedures to follow if students or staff become unwell.
Guidance suggests that “school openings can also be staged – for example, they could initially be limited to a few days of the week, or only apply to certain grades or levels”. Denmark, for example, reopened its schools on April 15 to children in daycare and Grades 1-5; Norway has also sent its youngest students back to class first. Other countries such as Vietnam are choosing to reopen campuses to high school and secondary school students first. Schools should also have protocol “for reclosing and reopening schools as needed due to the resurgence of community transmission”.
Prior to reopening schools should have policies in place to continue with distance learning for students who are at high risk of Covid-19 and cannot immediately return to campus; this would also affect students who may be quarantined after returning to their home country. Schools should also have health and psychosocial support services that can “support children and their families in coping with the continued uncertainties of the pandemic”.
Whether schools reopen sooner or later, they will look very different to what we have become used to for an unknown period of time. The school week may vary with students attending for two or three days a week and then completing the rest of their learning at home; they could attend school on Monday, Wednesday and Friday one week, then Tuesday and Thursday the following week, or attend either morning or afternoon sessions.
Corridors bustling with students and group learning will be replaced with staggered schedules and desks that are spaced wide enough apart to discourage touching. Students will be eating lunch at their desks rather than in crowded cafeterias, and we may see teachers moving around while students remain in one classroom to discourage mixing. It may be that some specialist lessons continue to be taught via Zoom or other virtual apps.
Playgrounds may stand empty or have less than 10 students playing 2m apart, after school activities will remain cancelled, and group events such as assemblies, sports days, parent-teacher conferences and fundraisers will be on hold. There will be temperature checks at the school gates, hand sanitisers in every classroom, and even stricter controls over who enters campus.
Some countries will prioritise students in the important transitional years, others are reopening first for early years and primary students based largely on the belief that the youngest children are among the lowest-risk groups for Covid-19 infection and transmission.
There are many practicalities to consider, and for schools with larger numbers of students this will be all the more challenging. However, as we have seen in the past few weeks of distance learning, schools have no other choice but to adapt to this new reality, albeit with varying degrees of success.
So, as we enter the next chapter in this learning journey, we focus on three countries closest to reopening their schools: Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam
Countries are taking different approaches in deciding which students should return to school first, and Singapore is among those to selectively reopen to a small group of students at first.
All schools in Singapore moved to full-time distance learning on April 8, and it was one of the last countries globally to be widely affected by Covid-19 to keep its schools from closing temporarily. Local schools in Singapore will start to reopen from May 19 with primary and secondary students returning in small groups for face-to-face lessons. Students taking national exams including Primary 6, Secondary 4 and 5, Junior College 2 and Pre-University 3 will return to school first, as well as those who need school facilities for coursework.
Attendance is not compulsory, and these lessons are not for learning new content; instead they will focus on coaching and consultations with teachers to help students prepare for national exams.
Education minister Ong Ye Kung said that said that schools will reopen “in a careful and calibrated manner, with ample safe distancing”. Students will be rostered to return at different times throughout the day and week, and they will be taught in small groups or one-to-one with fixed exam-style seating in “well-ventilated venues”. All students and staff must wear masks, there will be daily temperature checks, and strict hygiene measures.
Both local and international schools are due to reopen their campuses for all students from June 1; students continue to be taught through distance learning until then. Local schools in Singapore follow a January to December academic year, and students are still due to sit exams from August through to November. However, the majority of international schools end their 2019-20 academic year as early as June 5, so we are unlikely to see these students returning to campuses until the new 2020-21 academic year.
In Thailand, schools have been closed since March 18, and the Thai Government has been reviewing the closure of schools and universities every 15 days.
All state schools in Thailand, which follow a January to December academic year, are due to reopen on July 1, Education Minister Nataphol Teepsuwan confirmed last week (April 30). Schools will follow ministry guidelines such as wearing masks, washing hands frequently, and safe distancing between students. While small countries may reopen all schools at one time, larger nations such as Thailand are taking a more progressive approach and reopening areas with the lowest rates of transmission and lowest localized risk first.
International schools in Thailand follow directives from the Thai Ministry of Education, the Office of Private Education Commission (Opec), and the International Schools Association of Thailand (ISAT). They will continue with their distance learning programmes until the end of Term 3 in mid to late June, and they are expected to return to campuses for the start of the 2020-21 academic year in August.
Schools in Vietnam have been closed since February 3, and there is now a phased reopening of school campuses by location. Local and international high schools and secondary schools in Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) and other regions will reopen from May 4; primary schools and kindergartens will reopen from May 11. Some localities including Gia Lai, Hai Phong and Yen Bai, with the lowest number of Covid-19 cases, have already reopened their schools.
There are more than 80 international schools in Vietnam. One of the many to reopen this month will be The Canadian International School, Vietnam, which said on its Facebook page:
“To begin we are working through the directives from the Ministry and Department of Education and Training, MoET, and DoET to plan for the gradual re-entry to school beginning at CIS with students in Grades 8, 9, and 12 Ontario on Monday, May 4. We have waited so long for this plan and are so looking forward to seeing “our kids”!
“That being said, we must proceed with caution. It is critically important that our community is vigilant in following the procedures. As a part of the CISS Community, each of us needs to do our part in continuing to practice social distancing, limit travel, and avoid large crowds.”