How Will UK Schools Reopen?

As England awaits news of when primary and secondary schools can reopen, we look at how schools have opened worldwide so far in 2021 to get a sense of what a gradual return to 'normal' could look like.
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

One year into the COVID-19 pandemic, and more than 800 million students – that's more than half the world’s student population – still face significant disruptions to their education, according to UNESCO. At the end of January 2021, there were full school closures in 31 countries and reduced or part-time academic timetables in another 48 countries.

Schools are now fully open in 101 countries though, which is a huge shift from the number of 190 countries at the peak in April 2020. The UK, however, remains one of the 31 countries where schools remain closed. Prime Minister Boris Johnson is expected to announce plans for reopening schools in England next Monday (February 22). It is expected that primary schools will return first from March 8, with secondary schools a week or two later.

When England's schools reopened in September 2020, classes were taught in 'bubbles', and break and lunch times were staggered to keep bubbles apart. In class, students sat spaced out side-by-side and facing forward, and there was no requirement to wear face masks.

So, what can we expect this time round? Ministers are considering extending the school day to help pupils catch up on lost time, and there have been talks of reducing the summer holidays to four weeks to help students catch up on missed school work; another option is to offer children after-school classes.

As we count down to the big announcement for England's schools, we look at how other countries are reopening their schools – and what lessons we can learn from abroad.

Scotland and Wales

In Scotland, children aged five to seven years (P1, P2 and P3) will return to school from February 22, and plans for a second phase of schools reopening is due to be made by early March. When schools do return, all senior phase students, teachers and school staff will be provided with at-home testing kits, and all secondary students will have to maintain a 2m distance while on campus.

Announcing the news, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said:

"We are choosing to use the very limited headroom we have right now to get at least some children back to school - because children's education and wellbeing is such a priority. But being able to get children back to education may mean the rest of us living with some other restrictions for longer."

In Wales, children up to the age of seven will also return on February 22; there will be twice weekly testing for all school staff members as well as funding for new face masks.


In Dubai's private education sector, the majority of schools reopened in September 2020 with strict restrictions in place. All schools must continue to offer distance learning to parents who want this option for their child, and those schools with less space are offering a blend of learning (in-school and online at home), as opposed to "all students being in school, all of the day".

For those children who attend school, they must wear a face mask at all times (except for in the Foundation Stages and Year 1); there are staggered start times; and there must be "a safe distance of at least 1.5 metres between every child or person" across the school. Students stay in the same small learning groups or bubbles at all times every day and, where there is a confirmed Covid-19 case, that class bubble moves to a two-week pried of online learning.

In terms of sport, students have PE lessons in their bubbles, there are no school tournaments or inter-school events, and all school swimming lessons are cancelled.

Teachers and students must present a negative PCR test with "48 hours validity" prior to returning to school if they have travelled overseas. 

Hong Kong

Students at kindergartens, primary and secondary schools in Hong Kong are returning to classrooms after the Chinese New Year holidays after another lengthy period of closures due to Covid-19 – but only on a half-day basis and with a 30% cap on students. If schools want to open on a whole-school, half-day basis, then teachers are required to present a negative PCR test.


Singapore was one of the first countries to reopen its schools (and one of the last to close them) – and schools initially reopened in June 2020 with students alternating between home-based learning and classes on campus. From July 2020, as Singapore moved into Phase 2 of its post-circuit breaker, students in all year groups returned to campus daily, and schools resumed group activities in PE lessons and restarted some extra-curricular activities.

Now in Phase 3, all adults and students aged six years and above must continue to wear a face mask; there are still temperature checks on the school gate and social distancing measures in the classroom. However, most extra-curricular activities and school activities now allowed, and only higher-risk activities are suspended or limited to a smaller group cap.


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. All schools follow ministry guidelines such as wearing masks, washing hands frequently, and safe distancing between students.


In France, which has one of the lowest closed school rates, all students and adults must wear a face mask from Grade 1 (hand-made face masks are no longer recommended, and teachers must wear “Category 1” surgical masks which offer a higher level of protection). Students must adhere to one-metre social distancing measures in their classrooms and two metres in the canteen when mixing with students from other classes. Classrooms are aired frequently, at least 10 minutes every three hours. 

If a student tests positive for Covid-19, they must self-isolate at home but the rest of their class can remain at school unless there are up to three cases in the class. Kindergartens will close for a week when a student is diagnosed positive for Covid-19.

The Netherlands

Primary schools and nurseries in the Netherlands fully reopened on February 8, and secondary schools and after-school clubs remain closed until at least March 1. However, despite the reopening of schools, the Netherlands will stay in lockdown until at least March and a night-time curfew remains in place.

The government says that, "School staff already have priority for Coronavirus testing and this will continue. A trial involving rapid testing for primary school teachers will start soon."

In primary schools, there is no social distancing between students but teachers must stay 1.5m apart; there is no requirement for students or teachers to wear a face mask either. If any student or teacher tests positive for Covid-19, the entire class must quarantine and then take a test after five days. 


The lockdown will remain until at least March 7 and the government has said that it is for individual states to decide how and when they reopen schools. In the majority of German states, primary schools will resume face-to-face teaching on a rotational basis from February 22. The return to school is linked to infection figures, meaning that a sudden spike in cases could cause states to reconsider their plans and close schools.

Teachers are being given masks to wear in the classroom, and must take two PCR tests every week. In states including Baden-Württemberg, it is not compulsory for parents to send their child to school at this time.

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