Quantcast
Environmental News for a Healthier Planet and Life

Help Support EcoWatch

How Other Countries Reopened Schools During the Pandemic – and What the U.S. Can Learn From Them

Health + Wellness
How Other Countries Reopened Schools During the Pandemic – and What the U.S. Can Learn From Them
Students at the "Japon" public school number 72 attend class during the first day of the final phase of the gradual process to reopen schools on June 28 in Montevideo, Uruguay. Ernesto Ryan / Getty Images

By Bob Spires

As American school officials debate when it will be safe for schoolchildren to return to classrooms, looking abroad may offer insights. Nearly every country in the world shuttered their schools early in the COVID-19 pandemic. Many have since sent students back to class, with varying degrees of success.


I am a scholar of comparative international education. For this article, I examined what happened in four countries where K-12 schools either stayed open throughout the pandemic or have resumed in-person instruction, using press reports, national COVID-19 data and academic studies.

Here's what I found.

Israel: Too Much, Too Soon

Israel took stringent steps early on in the coronavirus pandemic, including severely restricting everyone's movement and closing all schools. By June, it was being lauded internationally for containing the spread of COVID-19.

But shortly after schools reopened in May, on a staggered schedule paired with mask mandates and social distancing rules, COVID-19 cases surged across Israel. Schoolchildren and teachers were among the sick. Today, several hundred Israeli schools have closed again.

Some blame lax enforcement of health guidelines in schools. The weather didn't help: In May, a record heat wave hit Israel, making masks uncomfortable for students to wear.

But schools were only part of a broader reopening in Israel that, many experts say, came too soon and without sufficient testing capacity.

"The reopening happened too fast," said Mohammed Khatib, an epidemiologist on Israel's national COVID-19 task force. "It was undertaken so quickly that it triggered a very sharp spike, and the return to more conservative measures came too little, much too late."

Israel's public health director, Siegal Sadetski, resigned in early July, saying the health ministry had ignored her warnings about reopening schools and businesses so rapidly.

Sweden: A Hands-Off Approach

Schools never closed in Sweden, part of the Scandinavian country's risky gamble on skipping a coronavirus lockdown. Only students 16 and older stayed home and did remote learning. Social distancing and masks were recommended but optional, in line with the Swedish government's emphasis on personal choice.

This strategy earned praise from President Donald Trump but some resistance from Swedish parents, especially those whose children have health issues. The government threatened to punish parents who didn't send their kids to school.

Sweden's plan seems to have been safe enough. Its health agency reported on July 15 that COVID-19 outbreaks among Sweden's 1 million school children were no worse than those in neighboring Finland, which did close schools. And pediatricians have seen few severe COVID-19 cases among school-age children in Stockholm. Only one young Swedish child is believed to have died of the coronavirus as of this article's publication.

However, officials in Stockholm have admitted they don't know how the disease may have affected teachers, parents and other adults in schools.

Sweden had over 70,000 COVID-19 cases as of July 21, which puts it in the middle of the pack in Europe, according to a joint study from Sweden's Upsala University and the University of Virginia. Of those, slightly more than 1,000 involved children and teens.

Japan: So Far, So Good

Japan, which has mostly kept COVID-19 under control, took a conservative approach to reopening schools in June.

Different schools have different strategies, but generally Japanese students attend class in person on alternating days, so that classrooms are only half full. Lunches are silent and socially distanced, and students undergo daily temperature checks.

These precautions are more stringent than those in many other countries. Still, some Japanese school children have gotten COVID-19, particularly in major cities.

A survey from Save the Children found that Japanese school children wanted more clear and detailed information about the virus and the outbreaks. Parents, students and teachers continue to express hesitancy about returning to school and displeasure over reopening measures.

Uruguay: A+ for Safety

Analysts credit Uruguay's well-organized and efficient public health system and Uruguyans' strong faith in government for its success stopping the coronavirus. The progressive South American country of 3.4 million has the region's lowest rates of COVID-19 cases and deaths, and it never shut down its economy entirely.

Uruguay was one of the Western Hemisphere's first countries to send its students back to school, using a staged approach.

In late April, Uruguay reopened schools in rural areas, where the student population is small. In early June, it brought vulnerable student groups, which were struggling to access online learning, and high school seniors back into classrooms. Then all students in non-urban areas went back to classrooms.

Finally, on June 29, 256,000 students in the capital of Montevideo returned to school. An alternating schedule of in-person and virtual instruction reduces the number of students in classrooms at one time.

Uruguay is notable for residents' consistent and early adoption of measures like social distancing and masks. Its successful pandemic response comes despite its proximity to hard-hit Brazil, where schools remain closed.

Final Grades

There is no perfect way to reopen schools during a pandemic. Even when a country has COVID-19 under control, there's no guarantee that schools can reopen safely.

But the policies and practices of countries that have had some initial success with schools point in the same direction. It helps to slowly stage the reopening. Strict mask wearing and social distancing is critical, both in schools and surrounding communities. And both officials and families need reliable and up-to-date data so that they can continually assess outbreaks – and change course quickly if necessary.

That complicates school reopenings in the U.S., with its soaring COVID-19 cases, limited testing capacity and decentralized education system. Most countries have national education systems. In the U.S., school officials in all 50 states must sort through the same politicized messaging and confusing data as everyone else to make their own decisions about whether, when and how to welcome back students.

Bob Spires is an Assistant Professor of Education at the University of Richmond.

Disclosure statement: Bob Spires does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

Reposted with permission from The Conversation.

Sun Cable hopes to start construction of the world's largest solar farm in 2023. Sun Cable
A large expanse of Australia's deserted Outback will house the world's largest solar farm and generate enough energy to export power to Singapore, as The Guardian reported.
Read More Show Less

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

Construction on the Muskrat Falls hydroelectric station in 2015. Government of Newfoundland and Labrador / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

By Tara Lohan

In 1999 a cheering crowd watched as a backhoe breached a hydroelectric dam on Maine's Kennebec River. The effort to help restore native fish populations and the river's health was hailed as a success and ignited a nationwide movement that spurred 1,200 dam removals in two decades.

Read More Show Less

Trending

We pet owners know how much you love your pooch. It's your best friend. It gives you pure happiness and comfort when you're together. But there are times that dogs can be very challenging, especially if they are suffering from a certain ailment. As a dog owner, all you want to do is ease whatever pain or discomfort your best friend is feeling.

Read More Show Less
A new study has revealed that Earth's biggest mass extinction was triggered by volcanic activity that led to ocean acidification. Illustration by Dawid Adam Iurino (PaleoFactory, Sapienza University of Rome) for Jurikova et al (2020)

The excess carbon dioxide emitted by human activity since the start of the industrial revolution has already raised the Earth's temperature by more than one degree Celsius, increased the risk of extreme hurricanes and wildfires and killed off more than half of the corals in the Great Barrier Reef. But geologic history shows that the impacts of greenhouse gases could be much worse.

Read More Show Less
Coronavirus-sniffing dogs Miina and Kössi (R) are seen in Vantaa, Finland on September 2, 2020. Antti Aimo-Koivisto / Lehtikuva / AFP/ Getty Images

By Teri Schultz

Europe is in a panic over the second wave of COVID-19, with infection rates sky-rocketing and GDP plummeting. Belgium has just announced it will no longer test asymptomatic people, even if they've been in contact with someone who has the disease, because the backlog in processing is overwhelming. Other European countries are also struggling to keep up testing and tracing.

Meanwhile in a small cabin in Helsinki airport, for his preferred payment of a morsel of cat food, rescue dog Kossi needs just a few seconds to tell whether someone has coronavirus.

Read More Show Less

Support Ecowatch