In March, the world came to a halt and schools closed for weeks, sometimes months, on end. Since then, countries have slowly started reopening schools, trying to find a new normal—but what is this new normal? Different countries have had different strategies, and the world is still figuring the best approach.
What are the pros and cons of reopening schools?
A much-cited argument for opening schools is that those under the age of 18 are less likely to catch the virus and less likely to get severely ill.(1) However, there have been cases of children under 18 falling seriously ill, even if it is rarer.(2) Naturally, many parents are wary of putting their children at risk, even with a smaller risk of illness.
But there are other aspects to the problem. For many families, not being able to send their children to school can have tough consequences: parents may not be able to work full-time, resulting in less income, and in some places, children rely on school lunches to not have to go hungry. Students also risk falling behind without adequate support. As the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) points out, schools are “critical to addressing racial and social inequity” and school closures impact differently on “diverse racial, ethnic, and vulnerable groups.”(3) As a result, schools reopening has been a priority for many countries.
Denmark and Norway have often been mentioned as success stories: only about a month after schools first closed, primary students were welcomed back in smaller classes with stricter rules about hygiene and social distancing. In Denmark, students were assigned to “micro-groups” of 12 students, arriving at separate times. So far, neither country has reported a spike in cases as a result of schools reopening.(4)
The majority of countries that have started reopening schools have done so with at least some changes to hygiene rules and physical distancing. Many countries have also staggered starting and ending times.(2) Younger students have often been welcomed back first, since they are less likely to get infected. This is also beneficial to families as parents don’t have to worry about supervising their children and can go back to work.
While some countries have gone for the physical distancing approach, some are opting for the safety of face coverings instead. Belgium, France, Germany, Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan are some of the countries where face masks are now required. Meanwhile, Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Greece, Norway and Switzerland have instead reduced class sizes to allow for a 6ft distance between students.(2) There is still little evidence for which of these approaches is the most effective in a school environment.
Do schools really play a big role in spreading the virus?
In Israel, schools reopened at the end of May, which led to several schools becoming clusters of infection. However, this is thought to be due to much less strict social distancing and preventive measures, and higher infection rates throughout the country.(4) Israel is thought to be an exception, as most countries report no significant effect from schools reopening.
In a German study, a very small number of the 2,000 schoolchildren and teachers involved showed COVID-19 antibodies. Another study compared Finland and Sweden, two countries that have a similar demographic but tackled school closures very differently. Both countries showed a similar, very small number of cases among school-aged children. These studies both suggest that schools don’t play a significant role in spreading the virus.(2) That said, we are still at the very beginning of research around COVID-19, and until we know more, caution is advisable.
Some countries that successfully reopened in the spring, such as Japan, are now planning to reopen without full social distancing measures. However, facial coverings are still mandatory and stricter hygiene measures are still in place. In France, the distancing requirement has been reduced to one meter. Many countries, such as Canada, are sorting students into “bubbles,” allowing for less physical distancing measures and more students attending schools.(5) Countries that have high infection rates are now beginning to welcome students back for the new school year, whether in-person or remotely.
In the United States, most school districts are opting for distance learning as the new school year starts this month.(6) Of the country’s 15 biggest school districts, only one is offering in-person instruction:
- New York City, Chicago and Hawaii are opting for a hybrid model, with students attending school a few days a week and learning from home the rest of the time. Students are also required to socially distance and wear face coverings.
- Districts that are only offering digital, remote learning include Los Angeles (CA), Clark County (NV), Houston (TX), Palm Beach (FL), Wake County (NC), and others.
- Orange County, Florida is offering students and parents a choice between in-person only or online only instruction.(7)
Both the CDC (Center for Disease Control and Prevention) and the AAP have published recommendations for school reopenings. The CDC recommends increased supervision around hand hygiene and “respiratory etiquette,” regular cleaning and disinfection of frequently touched surfaces, spaced seating and physical barriers as appropriate, and face coverings if feasible.(8) Similarly, the AAP recommends smaller classes, physical distancing and face coverings whenever possible.(3)
There are of course many variables that can affect the success of reopenings, such as the number of cases in the state, the size of the school, the combination of various measures, etc. Ultimately, it is a question of finding the right balance between keeping the rate of infection low, while simultaneously ensuring that children receive an education. As the year progresses, we are likely to find out more about what strategies are successful.
As we move forward, teachers and students will likely have to get used to distance learning as part of their education, even if it’s only part-time. Thankfully, many educational companies now offer tailored distance learning solutions that will help teachers give students a full learning experience, even during the time they spend learning from home.
At Twig Science, we have worked hard to produce a distance learning solution that works, complete with coaching videos presented by experienced teachers, and science lab videos that allows students to take part in experiments from home. Find out more!