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. (Photo: Getty Images)
Elementary school students wear wings to maintain social distance in Taiyuan, China. (Photo: Getty Images)

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. 

Children line up to enter their classrooms at the Ziegelau elementary school in Strasbourg, France, as primary and middle schools reopen June 22.
Children line up to enter their classrooms at the Ziegelau elementary school in Strasbourg, France, as primary and middle schools reopen June 22.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Children wash their hands at the Saint-Tronc Castelroc primary school in Marseille, France, on May 14.
Children wash their hands at the Saint-Tronc Castelroc primary school in Marseille, France, on May 14.
Students wearing protective face masks amid the coronavirus pandemic, clap along instead of singing a song during 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, Japan July 16, 2020. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon
Students wearing protective face masks amid the coronavirus pandemic, clap along instead of singing a song during 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, Japan July 16, 2020. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon
Children wearing face shields as a precaution against the new coronavirus outbreak sit spaced apart in individual tables at the Pereira Agustinho daycare, nursery school and pre-school, after it reopened amid the new coronavirus pandemic in Duque de Caxias, Monday, July 6, 2020. The city of Manaus in the Amazon rainforest and Duque de Caxias in Rio de Janeiro’s metropolitan region, became on Monday the first Brazilian cities to resume in-person classes at private schools since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the nation's private school federation. (AP Photo/Silvia Izquierdo)
Children wearing face shields as a precaution against the new coronavirus outbreak sit spaced apart in individual tables at the Pereira Agustinho daycare, nursery school and pre-school, after it reopened amid the new coronavirus pandemic in Duque de Caxias, Monday, July 6, 2020. The city of Manaus in the Amazon rainforest and Duque de Caxias in Rio de Janeiro’s metropolitan region, became on Monday the first Brazilian cities to resume in-person classes at private schools since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the nation’s private school federation. (AP Photo/Silvia Izquierdo)
Students sit at desks with plastic sheets set up to ensure social distancing during the first day of school, after the Thai government eased isolation measures and introduced social distancing to prevent the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), at Watpichai school in Bangkok, Thailand, 01 July, 2020. (Photo by Anusak Laowilas/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
Students sit at desks with plastic sheets set up to ensure social distancing during the first day of school, after the Thai government eased isolation measures and introduced social distancing to prevent the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), at Watpichai school in Bangkok, Thailand, 01 July, 2020. (Photo by Anusak Laowilas/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
Pupils sit apart during a socially distanced language lesson at Longdendale High School on July 16, 2020 in Hyde, England. (Photo by Anthony Devlin/Getty Images)
Pupils sit apart during a socially distanced language lesson at Longdendale High School on July 16, 2020 in Hyde, England. (Photo by Anthony Devlin/Getty Images)
Primary school students keep social distancing and wait in line before entering school in Windhoek, Namibia on July 7, 2020. Primary schools in Namibia reopened under strict health guidelines on Tuesday after COVID-19 shutdowns with students wearing masks and conducting social distancing. (Photo by Ndalimpinga Iita/Xinhua via Getty) (Xinhua/Ndalimpinga Iita via Getty Images)
Primary school students keep social distancing and wait in line before entering school in Windhoek, Namibia on July 7, 2020. Primary schools in Namibia reopened under strict health guidelines on Tuesday after COVID-19 shutdowns with students wearing masks and conducting social distancing. (Photo by Ndalimpinga Iita/Xinhua via Getty) (Xinhua/Ndalimpinga Iita via Getty Images)
Children in a pre-school class wear masks and sit at desks spaced apart as per coronavirus guidelines during summer school sessions in Monterey Park, California on July 9, 2020. (Photo by FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP via Getty Images)
Children in a pre-school class wear masks and sit at desks spaced apart as per coronavirus guidelines during summer school sessions in Monterey Park, California on July 9, 2020. (Photo by FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP via Getty Images)
Students attending morning assemblies wearing facemasks after their schools were reopened in Panadura. Sri Lankan government officially announced all schools in the country would reopen from July 6 for students in Grade 5, 11 and 13 after they were closed since March due to lockdown which was imposed as a preventive measure against the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic. (Photo by Saman Abesiriwardana/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images)
Students attending morning assemblies wearing facemasks after their schools were reopened in Panadura. Sri Lankan government officially announced all schools in the country would reopen from July 6 for students in Grade 5, 11 and 13 after they were closed since March due to lockdown which was imposed as a preventive measure against the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic. (Photo by Saman Abesiriwardana/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images)
Students read books in the classroom at a high school in Wuhan in central China's Hubei province Friday, July 10, 2020, the first day for Grade Ten and Grade Eleven students to resume schooling after the prolonged coronavirus break. (Feature China/Barcroft Media via Getty Images)
Students read books in the classroom at a high school in Wuhan in central China’s Hubei province Friday, July 10, 2020, the first day for Grade Ten and Grade Eleven students to resume schooling after the prolonged coronavirus break. (Feature China/Barcroft Media via Getty Images)
A number of children study in emergency schools built on Dadi's grave, Makassar City. This emergency school was established by residents to help children who have difficulties in learning during the coronavirus pandemic. (Indra Abriyanto / Opn Images/Barcroft Media via Getty Images)
A number of children study in emergency schools built on Dadi’s grave, Makassar City. This emergency school was established by residents to help children who have difficulties in learning during the coronavirus pandemic. (Indra Abriyanto / Opn Images/Barcroft Media 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, 2020. Primary schools across Malaysia reopen today as the new cases of COVID-19 among locals decrease. (Photo by 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, 2020. Primary schools across Malaysia reopen today as the new cases of COVID-19 among locals decrease. (Photo by Farid Bin Tajuddin/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
A teacher wears face mask for an elementary school student in class on the first day of school in 2020-2021 academic year amid the COVID-19 outbreak in Pesisir Selatan region, West Sumatra, Indonesia, July 13, 2020. Students in Indonesia went back to schools located in low-risk areas under tight health protocols after the closure of education facilities for months due to COVID-19 pandemic. (Photo by Andri Mardiansyah/Xinhua via Getty) (Xinhua/Andri Mardiansyah via Getty Images)
A teacher wears face mask for an elementary school student in class on the first day of school in 2020-2021 academic year amid the COVID-19 outbreak in Pesisir Selatan region, West Sumatra, Indonesia, July 13, 2020. Students in Indonesia went back to schools located in low-risk areas under tight health protocols after the closure of education facilities for months due to COVID-19 pandemic. (Photo by Andri Mardiansyah/Xinhua via Getty) (Xinhua/Andri Mardiansyah via Getty Images)
A group of underprivileged class 10th students, who do not have access to internet and cannot afford electronic gadgets to attend to their online classes, study in an open-air class in a slum organized by Satyendra Pal Shakya, a college student, as schools remain closed since March due to the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in New Delhi on July 20, 2020. (Photo by Amarjeet Kumar Singh/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
A group of underprivileged class 10th students, who do not have access to internet and cannot afford electronic gadgets to attend to their online classes, study in an open-air class in a slum organized by Satyendra Pal Shakya, a college student, as schools remain closed since March due to the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in New Delhi on July 20, 2020. (Photo by Amarjeet Kumar Singh/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
Syrian students in Idlib province take the middle school exam while maintaining safety procedures against the Coronavirus on July 12, 2020. (Photo by Karam Almasri/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
Syrian students in Idlib province take the middle school exam while maintaining safety procedures against the Coronavirus on July 12, 2020. (Photo by Karam Almasri/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
Students uses smartphones to work on online school assignments using free internet network while practicing physical distancing at public hall in Ubung Kaja Village, Denpasar, Bali, Indonesia on July 21 2020. Despite Indonesia government imposes new normal era, the local authority still close schools in high risk area of Covid-19 spread and urges students to perform home schooling using online learning from their teachers. (Photo by Johanes Christo/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
Students uses smartphones to work on online school assignments using free internet network while practicing physical distancing at public hall in Ubung Kaja Village, Denpasar, Bali, Indonesia on July 21 2020. Despite Indonesia government imposes new normal era, the local authority still close schools in high risk area of Covid-19 spread and urges students to perform home schooling using online learning from their teachers. (Photo by Johanes Christo/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
A teacher wearing a face mask measures a student's body temperature at the entrance to a high school which has reopened amid the COVID-19 pandemic in Yangon, Myanmar, July 21, 2020. Myanmar reopened over half of high schools on Tuesday after nearly two-month suspension due to the outbreak of COVID-19, an education official told Xinhua. Myanmar's academic year usually starts in June, but this year's term was delayed due to the pandemic in the country. (Photo by U Aung/Xinhua via Getty) (Xinhua/U Aung via Getty Images)
A teacher wearing a face mask measures a student’s body temperature at the entrance to a high school which has reopened amid the COVID-19 pandemic in Yangon, Myanmar, July 21, 2020. Myanmar reopened over half of high schools on Tuesday after nearly two-month suspension due to the outbreak of COVID-19, an education official told Xinhua. Myanmar’s academic year usually starts in June, but this year’s term was delayed due to the pandemic in the country. (Photo by U Aung/Xinhua via Getty) (Xinhua/U Aung via Getty Images)

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