Case by case: How nations are going back to school — or not

(AP Photo/Martin Meissner)

PARIS — The U.N. says it’s urgent to get kids back to schools after months-long coronavirus lockdowns, but with the virus still raging in parts of the United States and resurging in countries from South Korea to France, Spain and Britain, medical authorities are urging caution.

Governments are taking different strategies toward the new school year, depending on how many infections they’re seeing, the state of their health care systems and political considerations. Here’s a look at how some countries are handling reopening schools amid the pandemic:


In the United States, where K-12 education is largely the responsibility of states and local school districts, President Donald Trump and his education secretary have urged schools to reopen in person. But there has been heated public debate over the wisdom of bringing students back to the classroom, especially in communities with high daily new infections, so school reopening plans in the U.S. vary widely. Most of the largest urban districts are starting the year remotely after a summer surge in virus cases. But other districts plan to offer face-to-face instruction at least part of the time. Some have already had to quarantine classrooms or shut down entire schools because of spreading COVID-19 infections.


Only six African countries have fully opened schools. In South Africa, students started returning to class this week class by class. It’s the second time schools are reopening, after an initial reopening resulted in new infections and prompted new closures. As daily COVID-19 cases are decreasing, the government has said all grades should be back in schools by Monday. The South African government has also allowed parents who don’t want their children to return to school to apply for home schooling. Elsewhere in Africa, Kenya has closed its schools for the rest of 2020. In Uganda, the government is procuring radios for rural villages to help poor families with remote learning.


Some schools in Japan reopened Monday after a shorter-than-usual summer vacation to make up for missed classes earlier due to the pandemic. At an elementary school in Tokyo, mask-wearing children held a opening ceremony in classrooms instead of the school gym for better social distancing.


As of last month, 208 million Chinese students, or roughly 75% of the country’s total had returned to class, many on some type of staggered class schedule. The rest are expected to return by Sept. 1.


The Philippines has repeatedly postponed reopening schools, which are now scheduled to reopen Oct. 5. Even then, only remote-learning classes will be allowed. President Rodrigo Duterte says face-to-face classes should resume only when a COVID-19 vaccine is available.


Schools remain shut in India, Nepal and Bangladesh. In Sri Lanka, where the government says the virus has been contained to two clusters, schools were allowed to partially open this month for several grades facing government examinations shortly. Schools throughout Cambodia remain closed, while those in Thailand and Malaysia all reopened in July and August. Indonesian schools reopened in July with half-capacity classes and limited hours.


France is sending its 12.9 million students back to classrooms on Tuesday despite a sharp increase in infections in recent weeks. President Emmanuel Macron’s government wants to bridge inequalities for children that were worsened by the coronavirus lockdown and get more parents back to work. All teachers, middle school and high school students will have to wear masks all day, and schools will have one-way corridors and limited gatherings. Cafeterias will reopen to help children who rely on state-subsidized hot meals. The Paris region is giving out free laptops in case children are sent back into a lockdown.


Most German students are already back in school — and at least 41 of Berlin’s 825 schools have reported virus cases. Thousands of students have been quarantined around the country after outbreaks that some doctors attribute to family gatherings and travel during summer vacations. But Germany is determined not to close schools anew, so they’re sending individual students or classes into quarantine instead. Mask and other rules vary state-to-state. In Berlin children can take masks off during class; some states require masks all the time. The government says keeping schools open is more important than bringing fans back to sports stadiums or allowing big crowds for concerts.


Most of the U.K.’s 11 million students haven’t seen a classroom since March, but children are to start returning to schools across England on Sept. 4. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson called reopening schools a “moral duty,” and his government even threatened to fine parents who keep their kids at home. Among measures in place are hand-washing stations and staggered starts and lunch times, but masks aren’t generally required. Some high schools are mulling a hybrid mix of physical and online classes but the goal is to go back in person. Britain has more than 41,500 virus-related deaths, the highest confirmed toll in Europe, and Johnson’s government has been strongly criticized for its handling of the pandemic.


Amid new infections and increasing anxiety from parents and criticism from teachers’ unions, Spanish officials are adapting their plans before schools start reopening Sept. 4. They’re hiring 11,000 additional teachers, building makeshift classrooms in schoolyards to gain space and creating “bubbles” of students who are allowed to mix with each other but not with outsiders. Authorities are facing the added pressure of wanting to reactivate the economy in a country with relatively high child poverty rates. Save the Children is asking for electronic devices to be distributed to disadvantaged families. Teachers’ unions are calling for strikes. Madrid plans in-person classes for all students under 12, and a mix of online and in-class teaching for older students.


Most schools resumed class last week in the Nordics, as they did at the end of the spring term, amid a general consensus that there is more harm for kids staying home than the risk of sending them to school. Sweden has few virus measures other than banning parents from entering schools when they drop children off. High school students even protested after Denmark’s second-largest city shut their schools because of new infections, saying they don’t learn as much remotely and questioning why they can go to shopping malls, gyms or the movies with lots of others but not school.


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