While the current environment has impacted work, it is also having an effect on the education of children everywhere. This past spring schools around the world closed their doors due to Covid-19. By early April, some 1.5 billion young people were staying home as a strategy to protect people from the novel coronavirus. As the months unfolded, pediatricians and educators began saying that school closures were doing more harm to children than good, mostly because research showed that younger children rarely develop severe symptoms from COVID-19 or spread the virus to one another, or bring the virus home.
There were also a number of other reasons why returning to school was seen as the best option. This included the idea that virtual learning isn’t as good as learning in person and the fact that, with their children at home, many parents had to juggle jobs and childcare. Also, lower-income who depend on school meals weren’t being fed. By early June, some 20 countries around the world brought children back to school. Some countries, such as Taiwan, Nicaragua and Sweden never even closed their schools.
When looking at reopening strategies around the globe, specific patterns emerged, From South Africa to Finland to Israel, student groups were kept small and students wore masks. But should kids wear masks? Masks help stop the spread at school, but children find them uncomfortable to wear for hours and may not have the self-discipline to wear them without touching their faces.
In countries where masks are worn by many during flu season, such as China, South Korea, Japan, and Vietnam, schools require masks for almost all students and their teachers. China allows students to remove masks only for lunch when children are separated by glass or plastic partitions. And Israel requires masks for children older than age 7 outside the classroom and for children in fourth grade and above all day.
At certain schools in Germany, students are required to wear masks in hallways or bathrooms, but they can remove them when seated at their desks. Austria used this same approach, but only a few weeks after reopening did not require masks for students as officials observed little spread within schools. In Canada, Denmark, Norway, the United Kingdom, and Sweden, wearing a mask was optional for both students and staff.
With autumn now here, the world is seeing a wave of re-openings. In countries that range Mexico to Afghanistan to the United States, plans for fall 2020 are already underway. However, in addition to seeking consent from parents and children, returning to school requires buy-in from teachers and school administrators who themselves may be frightened by the prospect of contracting the virus.
To deal with the new reality, in the United States, some school districts are proposing hybrid models that alternate distance learning with smaller in-person classes. Other districts are starting classes online only. In Europe, many schools are changing break times and staggering start times as well as limiting attendance to a few days to prevent overcrowding. However, many countries aren’t following this path. For example, in June the Prime Minister of Bangladesh proclaimed that schools would stay shut until the danger of COVID-19 has passed. And in the Philippines, in-person schooling will not resume until there is a vaccine to protect against the virus.
As schools around the world reopen, relief will be accompanied by risk. We will continue to monitor the situation as events unfold.
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