What Other Countries Can Teach The U.S. About Safely Reopening Schools

One of the many challenges of reopening classrooms in the United States is that there isn’t much good data, if any, about what could happen. Will in-person learning lead to a jump in the transmission of COVID-19? Will students and teachers get sick? How many? How sick?

There is so much that health officials, teachers, parents and kids will simply be forced to learn in real time. And what works in another population, in another country, may be very different from what works in this population, here.

“There are so many different ways in which schools have reopened around the world, and it’s hard to put in a capsule to say ‘This is the best way’ or ‘This is potentially something we can replicate,’” said Dr. Ibukun Akinboyo, an assistant professor in the pediatrics department at Duke University School of Medicine.

Yet there is something to be gained by looking at other countries that have reopened before the United States. Schools and administrations can at least consider adopting some of their current best practices and can learn from their missteps before they become our own. Here’s what experts have to say about it.

Lesson 1: Take it slow and be deliberate.

Israel’s effort to reopen schools has made headlines, and not because it has gone well. Students and staff have experienced a surge in COVID-19 cases since schools started to reopen in May, prompting many to call the decision to bring students back into the classroom a “disaster.

But experts warn that Israel reopened too much, too soon. And having students return to the classroom at the same time that other parts of the economy were reopened has made it impossible to get a handle on where the new cases are coming from. As Hagai Levine, an epidemiologist at the Braun School of Public Health and Community Medicine at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, cautioned in an article in The Daily Beast: “The government decided to open the entire system all at once on May 17. What happened next was entirely predictable.”

The lesson, then, for American school districts may be that instead of reopening schools while simultaneously lifting other restrictions (on bars, restaurants, larger gatherings, etc.), it is better to focus on small, incremental steps.

“The key is stepwise implementation — it’s not a red light, then suddenly a green light thing,” said Dr. Sandra Kesh, an infectious disease specialist with Westmed Medical Group in New York. Schools and districts need to have the ability to track what is happening as they reopen so they can course-correct as soon as possible. Of course, widespread access to testing, which continues to be a problem in the U.S., is a big part of that process.

Lesson 2: Be creative about eking out social distance.

Elementary school students wear wings to maintain social distance in Taiyuan, China. 

In its recommendations for safely reopening American schools, the American Academy of Pediatrics said schools should aim for at least 6 feet between students’ desks or seats when possible, although it added that 3 feet might be enough.

Finding that kind of room in classrooms is difficult, but reopened schools around the world have taken distance very seriously. In Denmark, for example, students must sit at least 6.5 feet apart. Classes have been held outside, often in parks, when possible. (There has been some talk of that happening in the U.S. but little in the way of action on behalf of districts looking to pursue the outdoor option.)

Schools around the world have also been quite creative in their approach to reminding students to maintain social distance. At one preschool in France, staff painted smiley faces on the courtyard blacktop to make it clear where kids should stand. In Taiyuan, China, some children have begun wearing wings to help them stay far enough apart.

Of course, props — however cute or original — are not enough. One reason why many schools abroad, as well as many districts here, are sticking to a hybrid model (keeping kids home on certain days of the week) is to cut down on the number of students in the classroom at any given time to help maintain social distance.

Lesson 3: Tailor plans to kids’ ages.

When Denmark and Finland reopened schools last spring, they started with elementary school children, then gradually welcomed older students. That’s because there is some evidence — by no means conclusive — that younger children don’t spread COVID-19 as readily as teenagers and adults do.

That’s not to say that U.S. schools should open for younger kids first, but districts should certainly be considering the many ways in which age influences risk.

Young kids might be less likely to transmit the virus, but they are also less likely to follow social distancing rules. Older kids might be able to wear masks all day long, but this could be a struggle for younger kids, which is why in places like Israel, they’ve been required for children 7 and older but not younger students. As Dr. Nathaniel Beers, a pediatrician at Children’s National Hospital in Washington, D.C., previously told HuffPost, some districts in the U.S. appear to be taking this into account, requiring masks for children in second grade and above but only encouraging them for first graders and kindergartners or even younger children.

Lesson 4: Open only if community spread is low.

Here in the U.S., President Donald Trump is calling for schools to reopen at the same time that COVID-19 is surging across much of the country. But elsewhere in the world, successful school reopenings have happened only when the spread of the coronavirus was relatively under control.

“Across Europe and many Asian countries, schools have reopened in the context of lower community spread or lower community prevalence,” said Akinboyo. “I have not yet seen a country that has reopened schools in the context of what’s going on in the United States.”

That is not to say, however, that in areas where there is not significant community spread of COVID-19 that schools could not reopen safely, she added. But those are decisions that should be made locally and with an understanding that what is happening in any given city, county or state will likely be reflected in its schools.

“The community predicts the school prevalence of COVID-19 and not necessarily vice versa,” said Akinboyo. “We’re not necessarily seeing that school reopenings by themselves have led to a sudden spike among communities that have low prevalence.”

Below, photos of what schools and classrooms look like around the world lately.

FREDERICK FLORIN/AFP via Getty Images

Children line up to enter their classrooms at the Ziegelau elementary school in Strasbourg, France, as primary and middle schools reopen June 22.

AFP via Getty Images

Elementary school students wear wings May 20 to maintain social distancing amid concerns over the spread of COVID-19 in a classroom in Taiyuan in China’s northern Shanxi province.

DAMIEN MEYER/AFP via Getty Images

Schoolchildren wearing protective masks and face shields in a classroom at Claude Debussy college in Angers, France, on May 18 after France eased lockdown measures to curb the spread of the COVID-19.

Daniel Cole/ASSOCIATED PRESS

Children wash their hands at the Saint-Tronc Castelroc primary school in Marseille, France, on May 14.

Kim Kyung Hoon/Reuters

Students wearing protective face masks amid the coronavirus pandemic clap along instead of singing in a music class at Takanedai Daisan elementary school, which practices various methods of social distancing in order to prevent the infection, in Funabashi, east of Tokyo.

Silvia Izquierdo/Associated Press

Children wear face shields and sit spaced apart at individual tables at the Pereira Agustinho day care, nursery school and preschool on July 6 in Duque de Caxias, in Rio de Janeiro’s metropolitan region.

Anusak Laowilas/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Students sit at desks with plastic sheet shields during the first day of school after the Thai government eased isolation measures and introduced social distancing to prevent the spread of the coronavirus at Watpichai school in Bangkok on July 1.

Anthony Devlin via Getty Images

Pupils sit apart during a socially distanced language lesson on July 16 at Longdendale High School in Hyde, England.

Ndalimpinga Iita/Xinhua via Getty Images

Primary school students keep space between them as they wait before entering school in Windhoek, Namibia on July 7. Primary schools in Namibia reopened under strict health guidelines after COVID-19 shutdowns with students wearing masks and conducting social distancing.

Frederic J. Brown/AFP via Getty Images

Children in a preschool class wear masks and sit at desks spaced apart as per coronavirus guidelines during summer school sessions in Monterey Park, California, on July 9.

Saman Abesiriwardana/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images

Students attending morning assemblies wear face masks after their schools were reopened in Panadura, Sri Lanka, on July 6. The government announced all schools would reopen for students in grades 5, 11 and 13 after they were closed in March due to the coronavirus pandemic.

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Students read books in the classroom at a high school in Wuhan in central China’s Hubei province on July 10, the first day for 10th and 11th grade students to resume school.

Indra Abriyanto/Opn Images/Barcroft Media via Getty Images

A number of children study in emergency schools built in Makassar, Indonesia. This school was established by residents to help children who have difficulties in learning during the coronavirus pandemic.

Farid Bin Tajuddin/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Students attend classes while maintaining safety and health protocols imposed by the Malaysian Ministry of Health in Bandar Baru Bangi, Selangor, Malaysia on July 15.

Andri Mardiansyah/Xinhua News Agency via Getty Images

A teacher helps an elementary school student with a face mask on the first day of school in the 2020-2021 academic year in Pesisir Selatan region, West Sumatra, Indonesia, on July 13. Students in Indonesia went back to schools in low-risk areas under tight health protocols.

Amarjeet Kumar Singh/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Students in Class 10 who do not have access to the internet and cannot afford electronic devices to attend to online classes study in an open-air class in a slum organized by Satyendra Pal Shakya, a college student, as schools remain closed on July 20 in New Delhi.

Karam Almasri/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Syrian students in Idlib province take the middle school exam while maintaining safety procedures on July 12.

Johanes Christo/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Students uses smartphones to work on online school assignments using free internet service while practicing physical distancing at a public hall in Ubung Kaja Village, Denpasar, Bali, Indonesia, on July 21. The Indonesian government has imposed a new normal era, but local authorities have still closed schools in high-risk areas.

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A teacher wearing a face mask measures a student’s body temperature at the entrance to a reopened high school in Yangon, Myanmar, on July 21. Myanmar reopened over half of its high schools since coronavirus suspensions.