Some U.S. schools have already begun the 2020-21 academic year, with thousands more set to launch in the next few weeks. Americans would be well-served to look beyond the country's borders for signs of how school reopenings might go and lessons they might learn.
In the United States, the volley of conflicting guidance documents and policy recommendations for safe schooling during the COVID-19 pandemic has been difficult to parse, and tensions are high as the stakes for key decisions have life-and-death implications.
Numerous countries managed to reopen school buildings earlier this year, and the resulting successes and failures are instructive.
The Kaiser Family Foundation published a side-by-side comparison of the rate of positive COVID-19 tests on the day of school reopenings in 13 different countries. All but two had a national positivity rate below 4 percent on the day schools reopened. As of July 29, when some school building reopenings in the U.S. were just weeks away in some states, the positivity rate in the U.S. was 8.3 percent, according to the Kaiser report, which drew from data compiled by the Our World in Data initiative, based at the University of Oxford in England. None of the 13 countries examined by Kaiser reopened school buildings when the positivity rate was as high as that of the U.S.
As of this week, several states—including Arizona, Florida, Georgia, and Texas—were recording positivity rates between 10 and 25 percent, much higher than the rates in countries where the government and public health officials deemed schools safe to reopen.
School reopenings have been most successful in countries that have significantly outpaced the United States' ability to test for COVID-19, trace and isolate potentially infected people, and flatten the curve of new cases and hospitalizations. The United States currently accounts for 4 percent of the world's population and 25 percent of the world's COVID-19 cases.
That said, there's plenty of turmoil around the world. Kenya has canceled the rest of the school year and plans to require students to restart in the same grade when school resumes in 2021. Bolivia canceled the last few months of the school year and won't resume until 2021. Mexico's school buildings will remain closed this fall, and all students will learn via television broadcasts.
As in the United States, reopening plans in Canada differ from one province to the next, and they're still forming as the school year is set to begin later this month. One province, British Columbia, has delayed the start of the school year from Sept. 8 to Sept. 10, giving teachers and staff a little more time to plan for students' return.
In Toronto, the traditional September-to-January semester for high schoolers will be halved into a "quadmester." Instead of taking four courses for the first half of the year, students will take two courses from September to November and then two more from November to January. One group of students will visit the school building for class each morning, and another group will visit each afternoon. Elementary schools in Toronto tend to have small enough class sizes that social distancing in-person is possible and schedule disruptions won't be dramatic.
Other countries have already begun reopening school buildings, with mixed results. Here's a look at three of them.
How Reopening Worked: Schools shut down in March as the country began a month of lockdown. By April, the country's caseload had diminished to the extent that leaders felt comfortable reopening school buildings with a shortened day and requirements for social distancing. The country has not widely adopted masks, and teachers and staff were not required to wear them while at school.
On-the-Ground Perspective: Courtney Lockett is a kindergarten teacher at the Esbjerg International School on the west coast of Denmark. Her school opened on April 16 with requirements for two meters (roughly 6.5 feet) of space between desks, and recommendations to encourage hand-washing and teach outside as much as possible.
Parents are no longer allowed to enter the building, and class sizes were reduced, with the goal of keeping small groups of students together for the entire school day, rather than mixing people and increasing the risk of exposure to someone who is sick. Some teachers who previously taught a single subject were expected to become all-purpose classroom teachers. Dividers and temporary fences kept small groups of students from mixing while on the playground for recess.
The school day ended at 1 p.m., two hours earlier than usual. Lockett and her colleagues were encouraged to pare down the curriculum and focus on the essentials. "Under the circumstances that we were in, it just wasn't possible to have normal teaching," she said.
Older students stuck to the social-distancing requirements for the most part, Lockett said, but "it's just not possible to keep 4- and 5-year-olds from playing next to each other and touching each other," Lockett said. Her students were all aware of the virus and nervous about it but thrilled to be interacting in person again.
"They were just so happy to be together," Lockett said. "It was just the best day ever when they were back in school."
The restrictions began to ease in May as the school year wound down and the virus caseload remained stable in Denmark. No one at Lockett's school tested positive for the virus, she said.
This coming school year, class sizes will return to normal, but social distancing and other precautions will still be in place.
Lessons for U.S. Schools: Parents and teachers were anxious about returning to school in April, Lockett said, but the peninsula nation's relatively low number of new cases kept the fear from becoming too overwhelming. She attributes the relative stability of the reopening process, in part, to the country's small size and its universal health care and abundant free child-care options, achieved through some of the highest taxes in any country.
"We're not so worried about how to pay for things as people in the States are," Lockett said.
For teachers, Lockett recommends trying to put on a happy face and be willing to talk about the virus if students want to.
"If they hear adults being really moody and stressed, then they're going to feed off that," she said. "We just tried to do our best with the circumstances to show that things were going to be OK."
How Reopening Worked: Emboldened by a persistent drop in new cases and enthusiasm for restarting the nation's economy, leaders in Israel fully reopened school buildings in May. Children older than 7 are required to wear masks when they're outside the classroom, and children in 4th grade and above are required to wear masks all day, but enforcement has been inconsistent.
But during that first week, one school reported more than 250 students and staff had contracted the virus. The reopening coincided with a heat wave that forced classrooms, already cramped with students in close proximity, to close the windows, reducing ventilation. Close to 250 schools in the country were forced to shut down again after reopening, and experts believe the school reopenings contributed to a "second wave" of COVID-19 cases in the country at large.
On-the-Ground Perspective: On May 17, the day the government reopened schools and urged people to resume daily life outside the home, a 7th grade student at Gymnasia Ha'ivrit high school reported to the school that he had tested positive for COVID-19. One day later, another student tested positive. The number of infections at the school quickly soared to 154 students and 26 staff members, the New York Times reported.
Upon learning of the first case, teachers and students who had come in contact with the infected 7th grader were urged to quarantine. After the second case was confirmed, the school closed. A few teachers were hospitalized, while 60 percent of the students were asymptomatic, according to a report in the European infectious disease journal Eurosurveillance. The most common symptoms were cough, headache, fever, sore throat, and muscle pain.
"There was a general euphoria among the public, a sense that we had dealt with the first wave well and that it was behind us," Danniel Leibovitch, Gymnasia's principal, told the Times. "Of course, that wasn't true."
By the next month, 87 people who had come in contact with students or staff from the school also tested positive, according to the Eurosurveillance report.
Lessons for U.S. Schools: The Eurosurveillance report ends with a blunt set of recommendations: "COVID-19 prevention in schools involves studying in small groups and minimizing student mixing in activities and transportation. Teachers and parents should lead by wearing face masks, hand hygiene, keeping physical distance, etc. School attendance should be avoided at any sign of illness."
Modest numbers of COVID-19 cases in a given community shouldn't prompt schools to relax or abandon precautions. Improving air circulation is also a priority that shouldn't be overlooked amid the partisan battle over school reopenings.
How Reopening Worked: The school year was set to begin in March, but got delayed three months due to the pandemic. The government's plan in June established phases of reopening for different grade levels: high schoolers first, then younger students gradually over the next several weeks. Schools that recorded a new COVID-19 case were required to close once again for cleaning. Teachers were required to enforce requirements including using designated stairways and doors, refraining from hugging, and keeping desks separated. Some schools were forced to close as soon as one day after reopening, due to a confirmed COVID-19 case.
On-the-Ground Perspective: Gyungbuk Girls' High School, located near the center of the country's COVID-19 outbreak, placed red and blue tape on floors, and staff members rehearsed the flow of foot traffic in the school before it reopened, according to an account in the Los Angeles Times. Students were so excited to return to school that some of them quickly violated the social-distancing requirements. "Kids will be kids," principal Nam Young-mok told the Times.
Another school in Korea delayed the lunch period until 1:40 p.m., after classes ended, to prevent students from congregating maskless with each other after eating.
Lessons for U.S. Schools: Bringing students back in smaller groups could soften the blow if a school has to close once again shortly after reopening. Widespread use of masks in the country, as well as widely available COVID-19 tests and contract tracing operations, has helped ease the transition back to in-person schooling.
Even countries that appear to have gotten the virus under control can experience unexpected surges. A few weeks ago, the country reported 113 new infections—the first time that number soared above 100 in four months.