A student gives an English presentation behind a plastic sheet at a Funabashi elementary school. Courtesy of Kim Kyung-Hoon/Reuters
By Claire Felter and Lindsay Maizland
By late March 2020, as the coronavirus pandemic unfolded, primary and secondary schools closed in nearly every country, affecting more than 1.5 billion learners, according to UNESCO. In many places, educators quickly shifted to remote teaching with the hope of salvaging the academic year.
Since then, some countries have cautiously reopened schools with mixed results. Others don’t plan to resume in-person classes until 2021. But lack of access to technology and concerns about widening achievement gaps have forced a seemingly impossible decision onto school leaders: reopen their doors and risk new outbreaks of the virus, or continue virtual alternatives that could leave students further behind and suffering from social isolation.
What are the challenges to reopening schools?
Schools have struggled with what to do if a student or teacher tests positive. Most of the dozens of countries that reopened schools earlier in the year reported relatively low numbers of cases of the new coronavirus disease, COVID-19, and conducted widespread contact tracing. It remains to be seen, however, if schools can safely reopen in places suffering widespread outbreaks and community transmission, such as in many U.S. communities.
“It is possible to safely reopen schools, but one of the first criteria that needs to be met is that we not have an epidemic that’s spiraling out of control,” says Jennifer Nuzzo, an epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins University.
The worst-case scenario for many school administrators and public health officials is if schools suffer an outbreak after reopening that sickens dozens of students or teachers, spreads to the community, and causes deaths. When Israel reopened schools in May, the government did not require schools to follow social-distancing guidelines for long, and many classrooms returned to full size with around forty students. Since then, more than two thousand people have tested positive throughout the country’s education system and at least one teacher has died. In Israel and other countries, some parents and guardians have refused to send their children to school out of concern for both their child’s safety and their own.
After its disaster in the spring, Israel is now requiring schools with reported coronavirus cases to close for two weeks and all students and staff to quarantine. Schools in Germany, where infection rates are low, have taken a different approach, keeping classes running and forcing only close contacts of the infected person to quarantine.
Reopening schools is also expensive. Health experts have called on schools to guarantee they have enough personal protective equipment (PPE), such as masks and face shields, for students and teachers; cleaning supplies; and other safety materials, including plastic barriers, the costs of which can add up. Some schools have hired more teachers because of smaller class sizes, and others have paid to improve their ventilation systems and build handwashing stations. While primary and secondary schools in the United States have so far received $13.5 billion in federal relief, education policy researchers say it’s not enough for schools that were already struggling with funding. One report estimates that implementing precautions will cost $1.8 million for a U.S. school district with around 3,200 students. For example, reopening all of Maine’s public schools will cost an estimated $328 million.
Pandemic safeguards have also put special burdens on educators. Restrictions have made it difficult to promote collaborative and engaging learning, especially for younger students. In addition to fearing for their own health, teachers in schools that follow a hybrid model of in-person and online learning face the added stress of preparing lesson plans for both approaches.
What health and safety steps have countries taken when reopening schools?
To mitigate the challenges of reopening, schools have implemented many precautions, including the following:
Requiring masks. Researchers have shown that wearing masks can significantly decrease the chances of infection. Many schools have required students and faculty to wear masks while in the classroom. Taiwan’s government, which never closed most schools, provides new masks to all adults and children every two weeks.
Checking temperatures. Many schools require students to prove on a daily basis that they don’t have a fever, including by checking their temperature and filling out a form at home, entering their temperature into a mobile app, or using a contactless thermometer at the school’s entrance.
Social distancing. Schools have tried to keep students and faculty at least six feet apart by increasing the distance between desks, using plastic barriers in classrooms, and closing group spaces. Most public schools in Hong Kong closed their cafeterias, requiring students to bring lunch. In Denmark, schools are not required to enforce social distancing. Instead students are allowed to play with others in their class “bubbles,” small groups that arrive at school at the same time, use the same classroom and playground area, and are taught by the same teacher to try to prevent a widespread outbreak.
Decreasing capacity. Experts have suggested limiting class sizes to only a dozen students to reduce social contact, creating challenges for schools that usually have more than thirty students in a class. To address this, some schools have tried staggered schedules in which some students come to school on Mondays and Thursdays and others come on Tuesdays and Fridays. In Tokyo, high school grades were divided into two groups, with half attending in morning and half in afternoon.
Prioritizing vulnerable students. Denmark first opened schools and day-care centers for children younger than twelve, reasoning that they are at lower risk from the virus and benefit more from interactive in-person learning than older students. Uruguay allowed students in rural areas and those who had trouble accessing online materials back to school first.
Holding classes outdoors. Some schools have tried occasionally holding classes outdoors, which reduces the risk of transmission. If weather conditions prevent outdoor learning, experts say schools should open windows and filter indoor air. Frequently touched surfaces should be cleaned often.
Virus testing. Routine testing at schools has been rare. However, one school in Germany offers free tests to students and teachers twice a week that they can administer themselves at home. And Luxembourg tested about six thousand high school students and two thousand teachers before classes resumed in May.
What have been alternatives to in-person instruction?
Many countries rapidly transitioned to remote learning as outbreaks took hold in early 2020, and some have chosen to continue this form of instruction—including learning online, through radio and television programming, and via text messaging—until the virus is sufficiently contained or there is a cure.
In India, many states have relied on government-developed e-learning portals since the summer break ended in June, a massive challenge in a country where just 11 percent of households had a computer and 24 percent had internet [PDF] in 2018, though at least one of these portals can be used offline. States are still undecided about when to bring students back into classrooms, particularly as the country recorded its highest single-day increase in coronavirus cases in late July. The Philippines has ordered that in-person instruction not resume until there is an effective vaccine. Education authorities plan to roll out distance learning nationwide when the summer holiday ends in August, but teachers have raised concerns that many of the country’s twenty-seven million school-age children do not have computers or internet at home.
Other countries have suspended instruction altogether. Kenya’s education ministry announced in July that schools will remain closed through the end of 2020, with students expected to repeat the school year. While the government said it is working to make online learning more accessible for Kenyan students and has been broadcasting some school programs on the radio and television, it acknowledged that many households do not have the technological resources to fully switch to remote learning.
What are the risks of keeping students at home?
Education experts warn of severe consequences for students missing out on critical in-person instruction. Researchers project significant learning losses across countries that have closed schools, with even worse consequences expected for children in countries with already low learning outcomes and less resilience to shocks. In a June statement, the American Academy of Pediatrics urged school leadership to strive to have U.S. students “physically present in school” in the coming academic year, noting that school spaces are fundamental not only for academic instruction but also for children’s nutrition, social and emotional skills, and mental and physical health. The organization later qualified its guidance by saying that “science should drive decision-making” on whether to reopen.
Many educators express particular concern about underserved children, including those in racial minority groups and lower-income communities, where households may not be able to provide meals normally offered at school nor have the technology required for online learning. Teachers have also pointed out challenges for the five million students learning English in U.S. primary and secondary schools. “It was a challenge to get all of our students engaged on a weekly basis,” says Ramya Subramanian, assistant principal of a California charter school, of the switch to remote instruction. “Our students who are English learners had the hardest time being able to access our resources, which are primarily in English; they needed a lot of support.”
At the same time, social workers and child advocates have raised alarm that school closures could lead to a surge in child abuse. While there is no evidence of such a spike, they say teachers and nurses are not able to monitor children for possible cases.
Some critics of long-term distance learning also argue that as parents and guardians return to work, they will not be able to stay at home with their children. Experts have said this conundrum could lead to more accidents and injury among children left home alone, or deeper economic woes for parents who quit their jobs or cut back on their working hours to stay at home. One study in Germany estimated that 8 percent of the country’s economic activity [PDF] would be lost if schools and day-care centers remained closed.
Are children less likely to get and transmit COVID-19?
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), children are less likely than adults to contract COVID-19. Across several hard-hit countries, the proportion of cases among people under the age of eighteen ranged between roughly 1 and 2 percent of total confirmed cases. Some children infected with COVID-19 appeared to show no symptoms, but scientists say the prevalence of asymptomatic child cases and whether those cases are infectious is still unknown.
Young children also appear to be less likely to spread the virus to others. However, older children—between the ages of ten and nineteen—appear to transmit the new coronavirus as much as adults, according to one study of more than sixty-five thousand people in South Korea.
Despite the lower infection rate, many parents are fearful of returning their children to classrooms, seeing any risk of them becoming severely ill as too high. Alongside these concerns are worries that millions of older family members living with school-age children as well as a large portion of teachers and school staff—an estimated one in four in the United States—are at high risk of serious infection.
When will U.S. schools reopen?
When and how schools will reopen varies across states and localities. Some school districts, such as those in Chicago and New York City, plan to hold a mix of online and in-person classes. Others, including the Los Angeles and San Diego school districts, will hold all classes online.
Although the federal government and the CDC provided guidelines for schools on how to safely operate, ultimately the decision of what schooling will look like is up to local officials. Most state governors have announced rules school districts must follow to reopen. California’s rules state that schools cannot reopen until the surrounding areas have seen fourteen consecutive days of declining coronavirus cases. It requires students in fourth grade and above to wear masks and forces schools to close if they report a case. In Florida, where cases are surging, the education commissioner signed an executive order that would force public schools to hold classes in person in August. However, some districts are letting parents and guardians decide whether their student will learn in person, strictly online, or through a blended model.
Private schools, which serve an estimated 10 percent of children nationwide, often have more resources to implement state guidelines and can therefore reopen sooner than public schools. They tend to have smaller student bodies, making it easier to limit class sizes, and funds to hire more teachers. Private schools also don’t have the same curriculum requirements and facilities restrictions as public schools, allowing them to be more creative in their reopening plans. In some U.S. cities, parents are hiring teachers to conduct private lessons with small groups of children in their homes, dubbed “microschooling” and “pandemic pods.”
Source: Council on Foreign Relations (CFR)