Reopening Schools Around the World: The Health and Safety of Children and Staff

Maxie Gluckman and Paula Cordeiro

Over the last few weeks, a team of us have been working on health and hygiene recommendations for the reopening of schools in several countries. In May, Edify—an NGO we partner with—conducted a telephone survey with a stratified random sample of 388 school leaders from the eleven nations[1] in which they work. Our colleague Andy Johnson and Paula designed the survey, trained local staff in how to administer it and then with Maxie’s help analyzed the data. All of the schools surveyed are low fee, non-state schools sometimes referred to as Low-Fee Private Schools. The survey’s aim was to inform Edify as to their current and future responses to the COVID-19 pandemic, and potential future educational interruptions. A report detailing the results of the survey is in press (Edify Education Task Force, July 2020)

School leaders expressed three primary concerns with respect to reopening schools after closures: 1) the health and safety of children and staff; 2) financial sustainability; and, 3) loss of student learning during school closures. This is the first of three blogs and here we share what we learned about the health and safety concerns of school leaders, and the materials created as a response to support them in reopening schools. In the next blog we will discuss financial sustainability and in the final blog Paula, Andy and Maxie will share what we learned about student learning.

Health and Safety Concerns: School leaders talked about their fears for the safety of children and school staff when it came to schools reopening. Many discussed the fact that there is “no vaccine yet for the disease,” expressing that in general “the reopening of the economy could produce an increasing number of new people infected with the coronavirus.” This raised diverse concerns for how school leaders and school community “may handle the aftermath of coming back to school” given this reality.

Parent and School Leader Concerns in Children Returning to School

A large number of school leaders believe that “most of the parents will fear releasing their children to the school amidst this pandemic.” As one school leader commented “I pray to God that this will end soon, but parents are also afraid to send their kids back to school. Some prefer to keep them at home and continue with remote learning.”

Many school leaders expressed deep concern “about protecting the staff and students from the virus while at school” and were concerned “that our staff and students could spread the virus,” to each other.

Safety Measures for Reopening Schools

School leaders discussed all the new safety measures they will need to put in place before schools can open including securing “PPE for school children” and “staff.” They are not at all sure “how to acquire masks for all students as classes resume.” Many also discussed the importance of social distancing and the many challenges they will face, “I am concerned about the spaces I have in the school, the new regulations from the Ministry of Education could affect the normal flow in the school.” A few proprietors are worried that the school’s physical building will probably not meet new government regulations regarding health and safety with “government restrictions being too strong” and wonder “what the conditions will be in terms of infrastructure, student-teacher ratio, and teacher turnover.” A few mentioned that, “The government promised to give some materials for this but we are not sure we will have these materials” in time for schools to prepare accordingly.

There was also considerable concern about not having “health protocols” in place and the need to teach students (and staff) about “the necessary safety conditions.” School leaders made the following comments about their limitations, noting that they did not have: “enough hand washing stations for all students,” “classroom social distancing arrangements,” and that their “classrooms are too small and we need expansion.” Some expressed concern about, “The setting of the classrooms and the hygiene.” One school leader commented that “We need a real system to keep the school clean.” “It’s not just washing hands, hands sanitation, and masks.” Another stated, “In the new opening things will change, the meetings, classroom setting. Everything will be different.” One school leader reported having already, “prepared for social distancing in our school’s computer labs and classrooms” but this is not the case for many. Public transport was also mentioned as a potential concern, as a proprietor noted “What concerns us the most during this pandemic is that a child might get infected in the bus.”

Uncertainty

School leaders expressed much uncertainty as to when schools will resume since some governments have not yet made any announcements or governments keep changing the dates to reopen. One comment is typical, “We are concerned about the beginning of the school year, we are not sure we can start in August.” A small minority believe that, “The school will run as normal.” However, the vast majority of school leaders are, “worried whether we can actually have normal classes where children would be able to interact freely in the class and school campus even if the situation improves.” And school leaders “… have thought of ways in how we can return to this new normal.” Finally, a few are “…concerned about how we are going to assess students’ emotional and academic performance after this pandemic ends.” One school leader stated that because “students have a long period out of school we can anticipate behavioral challenges when schools reopen.” And there was also concern that there would be a, “…lack of motivation for students, due to repetition in their respective classes.” As one leader noted, to address this concern they are considering how they might “change the way we teach, because we know that they have been locked in for so long and we do not want them to feel the same way when they come back to school.”

How can NGOs Support Children Returning to Schools?

As schools begin to prepare for re-opening and the provision of in-person classes, NGOs can play a key role in supporting schools in learning about, and enacting, essential back-to-school health and safety protocols. International organizations and some national governments have created guidelines to support schools in developing plans and protocols to the reduce risk of exposure to COVID-19 upon returning to schools. However, the amount of information can be overwhelming and time consuming to digest and therefore counterproductive to best supporting school leaders during this transition. As a result, after conducting a thorough desk review of available information from reputable sources, we have created a “Back-To-School Health and Safety Recommendations toolkit see : https://globaledleadership.org/reopening-schools-safely/ which covers recommendations and examples for: School Space Configuration and Social Distancing; School Entrance and Exit Protocols, Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene (WASH); Transportation and Commuting practices; Food Health and Safety practices; School Health Services and Referral protocols; and Mental and Emotional Health recommendations. Each section of the protocol has an accompanying script for local staff to create short instructional audios or videos to share with school leaders in their country. Using the scripts and editing them for their local contexts local staff created a podcast, video and screencast that could be used in different nations. All resources in this toolkit are designed in a flexible manner, intended to be modified to add specific details, images, and examples relevant for each country context.

In addition to providing links to them in this blog, these resources have already been shared beyond Edify and here is one video example of a teacher in Honduras Veronica Membreno who taught her students health and safety protocols, having them create sample videos as homework. Below are examples from two of her students (speaking in Spanish).

And we end this blog with a few photos from around the world as schools reopen. We know these are challenging times and education as a whole looks very different. As much as we can we will be sharing resources, recommendations, and lessons learned from our global community. Please also consider contacting us if you have created something that you think could be beneficial to share with educational leaders around the world.

NEA.org and Washington Post
Business Insider.com and Washington Post-Japan

Thanks for reading!

Paula and Maxie


[1] Burkina Faso, the Dominican Republic, Ethiopia, Ghana, Guatemala, India, Liberia, Peru, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Uganda

1 thought on “Reopening Schools Around the World: The Health and Safety of Children and Staff”

  1. We are most grateful Paula and your team for this wonderful blog. God help us all and provide for all school leaders wisdom, knowledge and capital to all that our children will need in school to keep them safe and healthy from the conoravirus.

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