Back to School: What Will it Look Like?

With the start of the 20/21 academic year only weeks away, parents across the UAE are anxious to understand the logistics of keeping children healthy and safe at school come September. For this special feature, we look at how schools have, or plan to, return to action in five countries; the UK, Vietnam, Thailand, Hong Kong and Singapore.
This article is part of an editorial series on Covid-19
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This article is part of an editorial series on Covid-19

In many parts of the world, the restrictions that were put in place as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic are now beginning to lift. For schools, this means making plans to reopen with staff and student health, safety and wellbeing high on their agenda. In this special feature, we turned to our colleagues from International to see what the template for UAE schools reopening might be, taking the UK, Vietnam, Thailand, Hong Kong and Singapore as examples.

Looking back to Spring 2020, as many as 1.5 billion (yes, billion!) children and young children were staying at home, as a direct result of the Covid-19 pandemic. Whilst the scientific understanding of this new virus is still in its infancy, the drastic measure clearly worked. In many parts of the world, the pace of the spread of Covid-19 virus has slowed, dramatically.

While the school closures may have had the desired effect in terms of public health, many educators and parents have become concerned that their children have paid a high price to protect other sectors of society. The issue of child well-being and mental health have been cited as a primary cause for concern as well, of course, as the missed hours in education. Indeed, a recent study by the UK’s Royal Society indicated that the lost time in education could negatively impact the UK economy for an astonishing 65 years. With all that in mind, many world governments are now making plans for bringing students back to school in a way that is safe and continues to minimise the spread of the novel coronavirus.

In Dubai, the KHDA recently issued a set of 118 rules for schools to reopen.  In Abu Dhabi, ADEK (the Abu Dhabi Department for Education and Knowledge) has issued similar guidance, with one key difference: all Abu Dhabi school pupils will be required to take a Covid test prior to attending school. In both emirates, schools have been asked to submit their own unique plans for implementing these guidelines and, once approved by the authorities, these plans will be shared with parents.

Looking around the world, what should parents expect?

Going back to school looks and is different depending upon where you live. 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 sit at desks with homemade bright yellow plastic dividers; and schools in Japan keep 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 the World Bank.

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."

A Framework for Reopening Schools

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. Many of these requirements are reflected by the guidelines document from the KHDA.

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 re-closing 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 psycho-social support services that can “support children and their families in coping with the continued uncertainties of the pandemic”.

How will Covid-19 change our schools?

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, online; 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 are likely to 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 five international territories – the UK, Singapore, Hong Kong Vietnam and Thailand.

The UK

On July 2, 2020, the UK government issued a document “Guidance for full opening: schools”. The document set forth requirements for all school students (including young children attending school based nurseries), across the country to return to school in September.

Essential safety measures in UK schools will include:

• a requirement that people who are ill stay at home
• robust hand and respiratory hygiene
• enhanced cleaning arrangements
• active engagement with the 'NHS Test and Trace' application
• formal consideration of how to reduce contacts and maximise distancing between those in school wherever possible and minimise potential for contamination so far as is reasonably practicable

A key difference here is face masks; in the UK, face masks have only recently been made mandatory in indoor public spaces. As yet, they will not be required in schools.


Like all Singapore schools, Tanglin Trust must keep students 1m apart in the classroom

Singapore was one of the last countries worldwide to close its schools, and campuses were shut for just over a month. Schools reopened from mid-May, giving many international schools the opportunity to reopen, albeit briefly, for the end of the 2019-20 academic year – and the time to test plans for the ‘new normal’.

Initially, during Phase 1 of Singapore’s exit from its Covid-19 Circuit Breaker measures, only 50% of students were allowed on campus at any one time. Now, in Phase 2, every student can attend campus every day providing they can remain one metre apart; staff and students must wear masks or face shields, and there are daily temperature checks. Desks are spaced one metre apart and must be forward-facing, and there is a one-way system in the corridors to minimise contact. In a phased approach to reopening, schools have gradually been allowed to run more group activities and small-sided games that involve minimal physical contact. From July 27, the government has allowed secondary schools to resume “lower-risk” co-curricular activities such as basketball, badminton, tennis and computer club.

Several schools have held summer camps on campus (open to only their students, and often free or heavily subsidised) offering catch-up educational activities. As the new term starts, students at some schools can continue with a distance learning programme if they are currently located outside Singapore, or unable to attend campus due to stay-home notices or quarantine. For example, Stamford American International School offers a Transition to Campus Learning Programme.

Read more: What to Expect: Singapore's Schools, 2020-21 


VERSO International School will open in Bangkok in August with social distancing measures in place

While small countries may reopen all schools at one time, larger nations such as Thailand have taken a more progressive approach and reopened areas with the lowest rates of transmission and lowest localised risk first.

When international schools reopen for the 2020-21 academic year in August, all staff and students must wear masks, and there will be daily temperature checks at the school gate. Students in all year groups can now return to campus daily, as long as they can stay one metre apart; larger classes have been split to meet these social distancing requirements; students either work in smaller groups or attend school on alternate days. Also, schools must limit students’ time in air-conditioning to a maximum period of two hours.

Team-sports and contact sports are not allowed during PE lessons or at break times – which rules out rugby, football, netball, basketball and hockey – and extra-curricular activities, clubs and extra tutorials are cancelled. To avoid groups gathering, schools are asking all parents to drop their children at ‘kiss and go’ zones rather than escorting them onto campus.

Read more: Thailand's International Schools Reopen

Hong Kong

Social distancing at Shrewsbury International School, Hong Kong

Hong Kong’s international schools and kindergartens will not be allowed to reopen for the start of the new 2020-21 academic year until at least August 17, as the city battles to contain a third wave of Covid-19 cases. A decision on when they can reopen dates will depend on how the Covid-19 situation develops; the government will reassess the situation at the end of July to give all schools two weeks’ notice to prepare.

It is yet another setback for schools and students in Hong Kong, which have faced a turbulent 12 months. First, classes were suspended for up to one week in November 2019 due to protests across Hong Kong. Then, all campuses were closed from the end of January due to Covid-19 and all classes switched to distance learning; they reopened from late May with strict social distancing measures in place.

Schools affected include all 19 kindergartens and schools run by the English Schools Foundation (ESF), Hong Kong’s largest provider of international education, where students were due to start Term 1 on August 11. From August 11, all ESF schools will deliver all classes online. Once campuses reopen, students are expected to return on a phased basis, with the oldest students coming back first.

Read more: Pictures: How Hong Kong Is Reopening Schools


Renaissance International School Saigon is enforcing social distancing measures across campus

In Vietnam, there was a phased reopening of school campuses by location in early May; local and international high schools and secondary schools reopened first, followed by primary schools and kindergartens one week later. There are more than 80 international schools in Vietnam, many of which start the 2020-21 academic year in August.
All staff and students must wear either a face mask or face shield, and there are daily temperature checks on the school gate. In PE lessons, games have been modified to ensure that there is no sharing of equipment.

Read more: In Pictures: Vietnam Schools Reopen

Will your children be returning to school in September? What safety measures would you like to see in place? Do you feel confident that the spread of infection will remain low if children return to school?

We’d love to hear your thoughts - email us on [email protected] or comment below…

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