Back to school: Preparing and managing the reopening of schools

The time to start planning for school reopenings is now: to support Member States in this politically sensitive and charged decision, UNESCO organized its sixth Covid-19 education response webinar on 24 April around effective strategies to anticipate and prepare for this critical transition, sharing lessons also from past crises.

The health, safety and overall well-being of students and the entire education community was the central concern expressed by all speakers and the overarching message of the webinar, attended by 500 participants. The session enabled information sharing around key questions such as the timing, conditions and processes for school reopening.

Timing: When to reopen

In his opening remarks, Mr Borhene Chakroun, Director of the Division of Policies and Lifelong Learning Systems at UNESCO, underlined that Ministries of Education need to anticipate and prepare for the reopening of schools and start planning for it as soon as possible. Timing is the most crucial question. “Too early and the public health is in danger, longer than necessary and the learning loss will continue to aggravate, especially for the most vulnerable,” said Mr Chakroun. He added that this will be determined based on the status and evolution of the pandemic, informed by advice from health authorities in each country.

Elaborating on the question of timing, Ms Suzanne Grant Lewis, Director of the UNESCO International Institute for Educational Planning (IIEP), noted in her keynote speech that despite the numerous pressures to reopen schools, including concerns that closures have worsened educational inequalities, “there is a broad consensus that the absolute priority is to safeguard the life and well-being of populations.” Ms Lewis added that parents, teachers and school communities need first and foremost to know that the school system can protect the overall health and well-being of the entire school population, including both their physical and mental health, and to protect continuity of learning for all.

Key issues and effective strategies to consider

The Framework for Reopening Schools, to be issued by UNESCO, UNICEF, WFP and the World Bank, provides guidance to help national and local authorities make their decisions on why, when and how to reopen learning establishments. Presenting the Framework, Mr Robert Jenkins, Chief of Education at UNICEF, stressed that the decision to reopen schools is context specific and depends on the capacity of school systems to mitigate risks as well as community based factors, recalling that schools offer a wide range of vital services such as health and nutrition. In all cases, “we should be inspired to open better schools and leverage this process to improve quality with a focus on the most vulnerable, who must be proactively reached.”

Ms Grant Lewis identified at least three conditions for reopening schools: physical protection, including safe hygiene conditions, the availability of school personnel, especially teachers, and the capacity of local administrations and institutions to implement changes such as remedial actions, accelerated learning strategies and double shift schooling in some cases. Ms Grant Lewis underscored the importance of consultation, communication and coordination within the school community as well as with parents, to build trust, reassure parents of the safety of schools and coordinate among various stakeholders.

Representatives from Denmark, the first European country to reopen schools, gave a concrete example of how the decision was taken. “Nothing was done until health authorities said it was safe to go ahead. Denmark was in a unique situation because the spread of the virus was running a less violent course. We started with the gradual reopening of daycare and primary schools from April 15, and held extensive consultations with all relevant stakeholders,” explained Ms Elsebeth Aller and Ms Louise Hvas, from the Ministry of Education. The Ministry published guidelines with well-defined criteria regarding hygiene and social distancing, opened up a hotline and dedicated website with questions and answers updated daily. “We considered it important for the well-being of young children as it is harder at this age to give distance learning. But the clear message is that reopenings should not be rushed, and it is not realistic for the other levels to open yet.”

Other countries, such as the Republic of Korea, are reluctant to allow students to go back to school and prefer to ensure learning continuity online while strict social distance measures remain in place. The Ministry went for the “online school year,” explained Ms Soo Jin Choi, Director of the International Education Cooperation Division, by expanding the online learning platform. She attributes the success of this measure to teachers’ commitment and ICT skills, as well as public-private partnerships, including with telecommunication companies. The decision to physically open school will depend on consultation with epidemiologists, teachers, parents and school administrators, as well as a nationwide mock drill.

In Mexico, school reopening is planned in two phases, said Ms Maria Teresa Meléndez, Director of Curriculum Development in the Ministry of Public Education. During the first phase, only school in risk-free municipalities will open in a gradual manner, while the rest of the schools will reopen in the second phase. The school year will be extended for two weeks. Upon the return of students to schools, emphasis will be placed first on socio-emotional support before moving to academic content, based on relevant assessments and always prioritizing the health of the students.

Lessons learnt from past crises

In Sierra Leone, this is not the first time the Ministry of Basic and Senior Secondary Education, had to deal with a health epidemic. “This time round because of experience, we have not panicked because we are applying same strategies as during the Ebola crisis”, explained Mr Mohamed Sillah Sesay, from the Ministry. These included protocols of sanitary measures for schools, psycho-social support for teachers, waiving of school fees and provision of school feeding programmes. Thanks to wide social mobilization and engagement of community leaders, civil society organizations and other partners, parents were reassured it was safe to send children to school. These measures helped to significantly reduce school drop-out. “No child was infected in schools, on the contrary they helped disseminate health messages among their families,” said Mr Sesay.

In her closing remarks Ms Vibeke Jensen, Director of the Division of Peace and Sustainable Development at UNESCO emphasized that ‘school reopening is not unconditional’. It is ‘a complex and highly sensitive issue’ she added which requires the preparedness of the education system, from infrastructure and pedagogical process to teaching staff, students and parents.