Education ministers share plans for the reopening of schools after COVID-19 closures

Even if most governments have not set dates to reopen their schools, they are planning for a phased approach that places priority on health, safety and remedial learning, in measures presented by education ministers during an ad-hoc virtual meeting convened by UNESCO on 29 April 2020.

According to UNESCO’s monitoring, 71 countries have already announced when schools will reopen. Out of these, 12 have reopened schools, 52 have set the date for reopening during this academic year and seven plan to reopen in the next one. The majority of countries – 128 – have not announced any dates yet.

Setting the scene, Stefania Giannini, UNESCO Assistant Director-General for Education, asserted that “the decision to reopen schools is one of the most sensitive subjects on political agendas today and depends on the evolution of the pandemic and each national context. The priority must be to safeguard the health and well-being of students, and to build trust.” She outlined pre-conditions that must be in place for schools to reopen as well as options for organizing the return of students.

She highlighted that the Framework for Reopening Schools, jointly released 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, Robert Jenkins, Chief of Education at UNICEF, and Jaime Saavedra Chanduvi, Global Director for Education at the World Bank both elaborated on the fact that “the longer marginalized children are out of school, the less likely they are to return.” The opening of schools is not just an education decision, but primarily a public health one that needs to assess the various factors by analyzing how to mitigate the risk of contamination.

Welcoming these guidelines, Ministers shared their progressive approaches to the reopening of schools while keeping remote learning in place until the full return of all students.

The evolution of the pandemic guides all decisions. In Japan, the Assistant Minister of Education, Mami Omaya, explained that the reopening of schools and dates for examinations will be decided gradually, depending on the evolution of the pandemic over the coming weeks. The Ministry has prepared guidance on reopenings that provide a full range of health and safety recommendations.

The acting Minister of Education of the Islamic Republic of Iran expects that schools will reopen in the new academic year in September, based on monitoring of the pandemic, except for higher education that could restart in phases ahead of this. He insisted on the importance of continuing education remotely to finish the current school year.

In the Lao People’s Democratic Republic, the Minister of Education Sengdeuane Lachanthaboune said that her country is gearing up to start opening schools gradually on 18 May for grades that have examinations, before opening the rest of the education institutions a few weeks later. Strict measures are in place including temperature taking, masks and social distancing. Meanwhile, remote learning will continue through platforms, television and radio.

New Delhi:Moving to Europe, different approaches are being taken. In Italy, the government announced that schools will reopen in September. Italy’s Minister of Education, Lucia Azzolina, explained that the decision is evidence-based, taking into account the recommendations of a scientific committee, wide consultation with stakeholders as well as monitoring of remote learning activities. She stressed the importance of education for the social and economic life of the country, and the crucial role it must play in the recovery process of this crisis. “We are hiring 24,000 teachers, encouraging young people to join the teaching profession and starting the school year with a massive initiative of remedial classes,” she said.

The French Minister of Education Jean-Michel Blanquer announced his country’s gradual approach to the reopening of schools that will begin on 11 May. He said that it will vary from one region to another depending on how badly a specific location has been affected by the virus. “We will limit the number of learners in classrooms and we will divide up pupils in different spaces.” A national document specifies health measures that all schools must respect, while the curriculum will be adapted at each level to take into consideration the shortened school year. Parents can decide whether to send their children to school or to keep them home and continue with e-learning.

A similar approach is being followed in Croatia. A representative of the Ministry explained that schools will gradually open from 11 May and parents will have a final say on whether or not to send their children to school.

In the Arab States, the Lebanese Minister of Education Tarek Al Majzoub mentioned how this crisis has hit his country amidst an economic and social crisis. He said that schools will reopen in phases, stressing the need to tap new ideas and promote the concept of “resilient educational solidarity”.

In Latin America, Ministers from several countries evoked the challenge of addressing inequality during school closures, while describing their reopening plans. This was stressed by Argentina’s Minister of Education of Argentina Nicolás Trotta, where a date for school reopening has not been set. The government is using digital resources, school textbooks, TV and radio to ensure learning continuity.

In Peru, where an opening date has not been set, the Minister of Education Martín Benavides also expressed concerns about inequalities. “We are worried about specific populations: Primary school students and learners in rural areas. We are looking to learn from the experiences of other countries to plan our reopening process.”

No dates have been announced yet for the reopening of school in Costa Rica. The Vice Minister of Education Melania Brenes explained that “We are still under strict social distancing measures. The national standardized test has been canceled. We are monitoring specific areas to prevent school dropouts.”

Several ministers also highlighted how innovations introduced during school closures can continue to inform pedagogical practices when schools reopen.

Colombian Minister of Education Maria Victoria Angulo said that her country is preparing to open schools gradually, particularly working in rural and remote areas to ensure that social distancing practices are efficiently maintained. Digital applications are being developed for teachers around socio-emotional and academic challenges, while student evaluations will be conducted differently.

The Mexican Minister of Education Esteban Moctezuma Barragán put emphasis on the continued period of school closures, during which keeping the bond between children, teachers and parents has been a priority. He said that all learners have free textbooks, along with access to educational television broadcasts that reach almost all students in the country. “This is a whole new distance learning method that we plan to maintain even after school resumes. Radio education programmes in 15 languages are also being used in places where TV is not accessible.”

In Ecuador, there will be a progressive process of reopening of schools. The biggest challenge, as the acting Minister of Education explained, is changing habits of teaching and learning. “The most important thing is the contact of teachers with children and parents to provide support when they need it. We are working to expand connectivity. We are aiming to strengthen online learning as a more permanent means of providing education.”

Concluding the session, Ms Giannini recognized the complexity of school reopening and the importance of a long-term perspective. “We must work together to make our education systems more resilient and better prepared for the current paradigm shift as well as to face possible crisis in the future.”