The challenge of safely reopening schools in a pandemic
As the school year begins in many countries, the pandemic is affecting millions of students. The implications for these children, their families and their broader societies are significant and will last well beyond the pandemic.
In the spring, when the pandemic initially spread around the world, 78 percent of countries closed schools, according to the UN. Some of those countries have since opened schools, but the UN notes that more than 1 billion students were still out of school as of late August.
Schools and universities in some countries have fully reopened, including many European countries. Others have reopened in some hybrid form, such as alternating in-person and online school days to limit class sizes or sending younger children back to school while providing online schooling to older students. In many countries, there have been starts and stops to opening.
In multiple countries, schools are providing remote learning only or are completely closed. Examples include the Philippines, which is planning to start with remote learning, India with mostly online or closed schools, and Israel with a second lockdown that includes closing schools. Kenya closed schools for this academic year after seeing that many students were unable to access remote learning. In the US, the largest school systems (except for New York City) have started completely online, while school districts around the country are choosing online, hybrid or in-person openings.
The countries that have successfully reopened schools, such as a few in Europe, typically had low infection rates before sending children back to the classroom. Many schools in the US reopened while infection rates were still high, and there are multiple cases of schools and universities that had to close again after opening due to COVID-19 outbreaks. School reopenings are more likely to work well when the virus is contained first. However, Israel reopened schools in May after a short and seemingly successful lockdown that brought rates down, but soon it saw outbreaks in schools. This suggests that, even when infection rates are low, schools still need to practice virus mitigation measures to avoid a resurgence.
For the many children around the world who are attending school remotely, have no schooling or face disruptions to in-person classes, the consequences are significant. UN agencies have warned that many children may never return to school, even when the pandemic is over. The director-general of UNESCO recently noted that 11 million girls worldwide might never return.
School closures have placed many children at greater risk of domestic violence. In some countries, there is an increase in child marriage in the wake of the school closures and pandemic-driven economic crisis. Some older children must care for younger children while parents work, complicating their ability to study.
Even when infection rates are low, schools still need to practice virus mitigation measures to avoid a resurgence.
Kerry Boyd Anderson
The school closures so far, especially if combined with ongoing closures or insufficient remote learning, will have long-term negative effects on children’s earnings, affecting individuals and their broader economies. A Brookings Institution analysis noted that research suggests that “every additional year of schooling equates to 10 percent in additional future earnings.”
Remote learning and partial school closures also exacerbate inequalities. From wealthy countries such as the US to less developed ones such as Kenya, wealthy families are more likely to pay for private education, while other families are stuck with suboptimal options or no school at all. Some children have access to essential infrastructure for remote learning — such as electricity, reliable internet service, and sufficient devices — while others do not.
School closures and online learning have forced many parents to reduce their working hours or leave their job, and this is another drag on economic recovery. The impact on women is particularly pronounced, as women are more likely than men to reduce hours or leave a job to care for children. The UN and multiple experts have warned that the pandemic’s consequences could severely set back women’s economic advances.
To address these problems, the primary solution is to improve control over the virus’ spread. It is difficult to safely open schools for in-person learning when infection rates are high. Implementing basic virus mitigation measures — such as wearing masks, social distancing, and testing for COVID-19 — throughout society are the first steps toward bringing children back to school.
Prioritizing reopening schools ahead of some other parts of the economy is also important. All economies will struggle to recover until children are back in school and parents are back at work.
Many societies also need to do more to value care. Caring for children is often seen as women’s work and therefore as having a low economic value. In fact, this is essential work that contributes to the broader economy and society. There is much that public and private sectors can do to support parents while children are receiving their education partly or entirely at home.
It is clear that schools need to implement virus mitigation measures, even when a locality has relatively low infection rates. The appropriate measures will vary by location and age group, but they will remain important. Examples include masks, staggered schedules, routine COVID-19 testing, extra cleaning, and “bubbles” that limit students’ and teachers’ contact with others beyond a small group. Finally, action to produce a safe and effective vaccine as soon as possible is crucial.
Safely reopening schools does not only benefit children and their parents, it is essential to short-term economic recovery and long-term economic prosperity and is also essential to the future of a society.
• Kerry Boyd Anderson is a writer and political risk consultant with more than 16 years’ experience as a professional analyst of international security issues and Middle East political and business risk. Her previous positions include deputy director for advisory with Oxford Analytica and managing editor of Arms Control Today.