An international review of plans for school reopening

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Summary of report

Scope of study

  • this report is based on a survey of recently-published guidance documents and media commentary related to the management of the reopening of schools after closure in response to the Covid-19 pandemic
  • we consider current approaches to reopening schools, using relevant country examples to illustrate trends in policy
  • we use examples from high-income, middle-income and low-income contexts
  • at the time of writing, most of the school systems that have reopened are in high-income or middle-income countries. Schools in most low-income and many middle-income countries remain closed. The evidence base related to the experience of reopening is, therefore, heavily skewed towards high-income and middle-income countries
  • we identify issues relating to the use of technology in the reopened schools

Key findings

Approaches to school reopening have been heavily influenced by the political context of each country

  • Decisions about reopening schools are highly political and attract high levels of public attention. In democratic states the decision-making has been typically contentious and contested. In most countries (and provinces where the system is federal) reopening decisions are ultimately made at the level of the prime minister/president rather than by ministers of education and health. In the Philippines, the recommendations of the ministry of education for reopening in August 2020 were publicly overruled by the president who has postponed reopening indefinitely. In countries facing similar circumstances national governments have, in some cases, reached very different conclusions. In Laos schools reopened in May 2020; in neighbouring Cambodia schools will only open, at the earliest, in November 2020. Decisions about which students go back first are also subject to political judgement about the relative importance of educational continuity for different student groups.

Very few low-income countries have reopened their schools because of the state of the epidemic and the difficulty of reopening

  • The first phase of the reopening of schools was almost entirely concentrated in high-income and middle-income countries. This reflects both the pattern of spread of the virus and the difficulties faced by low-income countries as they seek to meet the health and hygiene requirements needed for safe reopening. The pandemic first hit Asian and European countries and these regions have provided a majority of the early cases of school reopening. The governments of several low-income countries are currently considering school reopening but are cautious about acting precipitately because it is extremely difficult to guarantee hygiene and social distancing in a resource-poor environment. 

Most governments supervising school reopening have focused on the immediate challenge of implementing new hygiene protocols at school level and not the opportunity to ‘build back better’

  • Where schools have reopened or are currently reopening, governments have typically taken very seriously the mitigation of the risk that schools might become places where the virus is transmitted. Policy and practice have largely corresponded with the advice of international bodies such as UNESCO and the World Bank on these matters. School capacity for reopening with new health and safety rules has been carefully assessed in many countries. In some but not all countries key stakeholders have been fully consulted. New standard operating procedures for hygiene and social distancing have been clearly articulated in most places. The World Bank has called on education policymakers to ‘build back better’. Our enquiry suggest that much less attention has been given to this agenda of transformation and the need to build long-term resilience.

Concerns about the urgent need to address health and safety has led many policymakers to neglect the challenge of providing equitable blended learning opportunities in reopened schools

  • The intensity of the preoccupation with the health and hygiene challenge has made it difficult for policymakers to devote much attention to issues of access and equity in the reopened schools. Most school systems have reopened or will reopen with reduced access to face-to-face teaching, with time in school rationed through some form of shift or rota system. Policymakers assume that students will have access to ‘blended’ learning opportunities. Reduced classroom time will be compensated by increased learning at home. There are many risks associated with these assumptions regarding blended learning. There has been little focus at national and provincial level on the role of technology in the new world of blended learning. In most countries there remains a ‘digital divide’ that will make it more difficult for disadvantaged students to participate in any online learning provision. Similarly, disadvantaged students will find it more difficult to engage at home when ‘low tech’ TV or radio broadcasting is used to supplement classroom time. Worldwide teachers will need training and support if they are to be effective in the management of the mixed modalities of blended learning.

Policy on school reopening rarely addresses the question of the quality and impact of provision in reopened schools

  • Ensuring the effectiveness of blended learning in reopened schools will depend upon the existence and use of information from the frontline about school quality, student engagement and academic progress. Country level responses to reopening rarely emphasise the importance of data related to individual students and groups of students. Data should be gathered on student enrolment, attendance, engagement and achievement. Disaggregated data is particularly important for identifying and tracking the engagement of vulnerable groups of students. One aspect that has received relatively little attention from the planning and coordination of school reopening efforts is the accountability of schools and teachers. There is a need to check that students are receiving good blended learning opportunities.

The scale of difficulty of reopening schools in low-income countries is such that it will require new solutions and not simply the modification of approaches currently being implemented in some high-income countries

  • It is difficult to understate the challenge of school reopening in resource-poor contexts where schools are often overcrowded. In low-income countries the blended learning model is doubly problematic: social distancing and frequent washing in school is very difficult and engagement with technologically-enabled home learning is not currently possible in many households. The measures being introduced in high-income countries to ensure the health and wellbeing of students and staff during school reopening will be extremely difficult to manage. Millions of students in low-income countries lack access to online learning and educational broadcasting. Different approaches are needed that are not simply a version of the blended model that is emerging in high-income contexts.