Countries in Europe and elsewhere have taken very different strategies to getting children back to school after closures. What are the difficulties in making decisions about re-opening? And why is there so much variation among national approaches?
The Covid-19 crisis has required governments to make many difficult decisions, all fraught with risk. Among them is the re-opening of schools. This is complex because we lack so much key information. It is relatively easy to list the issues involved in the decision, as we do below, but much harder to quantify these factors – and even harder to weigh the costs and benefits of different options.
Why is it difficult to decide when to re-open?
Many governments decided relatively early on to get some children back at school: by late May, 22 European countries had re-opened schools. Naturally, this involves a health risk from potentially re-starting Covid-19 infection dynamics. But there are also other risks from not opening schools.
While all countries will implement social distancing precautions and enhanced hygiene procedures in schools, greater contact is inevitable – between pupils, pupils and staff, pupils and other parents, both at school and during the commute to school. This in turn can take Covid-19 back to homes and communities.
The difficulty is that there is a lot of uncertainty about what the overall effect will be – for example, how easily do children transmit the virus to other children and to adults? Factors that will influence this include the initial level of infection, the density of population, the availability of space at school, as well as the accessibility of rapid response testing and tracing facilities at a local level (see John Hopkins, 2020).
Educational and inequality risks
The health risk is a key factor in this decision, but it is not the only one. Closing schools results in a loss of skills, and a consequent loss of productivity. Each week of school missed reduces the educational opportunities and achievements of millions of young people (Burgess and Sievertsen, 2020). These losses of skills matters for the future growth and prosperity of the country.
In addition, it is likely that the implications for educational outcomes will be strongly unequal. Experiences of education are now much more polarised than in normal times. Children in more disadvantaged families have less availability of digital devices and a fast internet connection at home. They are also more likely to live in overcrowded housing situations. In addition, less educated parents have probably less time and fewer skills to help their children in their home schooling activities (Bol, 2020).
Schools, moreover, are also important because they provide children with other facilities: food, company, sports and other physical activities. Countries and families face important long-term implications of skill loss and growing educational inequality.
Risks to parents’ work
Schools also offer child-minding services. A large-scale return to work, urgently needed to boost family incomes for those without work and to rebuild businesses, requires large-scale childcare. This is simply not possible without the schools being open, especially in countries with high female labour force participation. In the UK, around half of the workforce has at least one dependent child at home, and so business in general cannot re-open until the schools are open.
What strategies have different countries adopted?
The timing of re-opening schools strongly affects health risks, learning and educational inequality, and jobs, business and poverty. The weighing of these factors cannot be framed simplistically as ‘money versus lives’. Income loss, poverty and unemployment also affect health and influence mortality.
Many European countries have re-opened their schools, without apparent large increases in infection rates, although the re-opening so far has typically been for a small fraction of pupils, and only for a couple of weeks. An early overview of different countries’ policy responses on schools is provided by OECD/PISA, and the Johns Hopkins report provides details of policies on school return.
To illustrate the ways that governments are tackling this issue, here we discuss three countries that have taken very different decisions: Denmark, which only closed schools completely for one month; Italy, where schools will be closed till September; and England, where the situation remains unclear.
On 10 March, Denmark had 262 confirmed Covid-19 cases. The day after, that number had risen to 514. In a reaction to this increase, the prime minister, Mette Frederiksen, announced the first set of lockdown measures, including the closure of all childcare institutions, schools, colleges and universities with effect from 13 March.
The number of Covid-19-related deaths in Denmark peaked at the end of April and the daily number of Covid-19 deaths has been below 10 since 1 May. But already on 6 April, the prime minister announced that childcare institutions and primary school (up to grade 5, children up to the age of 11) would open again on 15 April. On 7 May, it was announced that lower secondary schooling (up to grade 10, children up to the age of 16) would re-open on 18 May.
Children in Denmark do not return to the school day they used to know. The school day is structured such that children (and teachers) can maintain the generally advised distance (initially 2 meters, now 1 meter). Schools are encouraged to assign children to a small number of fixed peers to interact with during breaks and teaching, and to structure the teaching such that children have a minimum number of different teachers.
With the outbreak of the first coronavirus cases, schools were closed in the regions of Lombardy and Veneto where the first cases occurred (21 February). Then, some of the regions where infections were higher gradually announced temporary school closures. From 4 March, all schools were closed in Italy.
In the government’s initial announcement, the plan was to re-open schools by 15 March. But given the increased diffusion of the virus and the intensification of the lockdown measures, the re-opening date has continued to be postponed.
At present, primary schools, secondary schools and universities are expected to re-open, at least partially, only in September. All schools, apart from nurseries, are in any case usually closed in Italy for the summer break from the beginning of June to the beginning of September. The government is considering re-opening nurseries and summer childcare facilities earlier.
Few official details have been released so far on how in practice schools will re-open in September. The government has formed a taskforce in charge of advising on these issues.
In a decree approved in mid-May, the government announced that to tackle the Covid-19 emergency, they will hire many more teachers next year (increasing the number of teachers by 16,000). The government has also allocated funds for that period to provide digital devices to students in need for home schooling, equipment to ensure social distancing at school, and safety and health material to prevent the diffusion of the virus.
Schools in England officially closed on 20 March, although some had taken unilateral decisions to close before then. At that time, there was no official comment on a likely re-opening date, and many probably envisaged a very lengthy closure.
Two months on, as of late May, government policy is that some schools may be able to open from the 1 June on a partial basis, that is, for some of their pupils; but no schools are expected to open fully before September. The re-opening policy is explicitly conditional, depending chiefly on whether the rate of infection is continuing to fall.
The youngest children are in the initial wave of those returning: nursery, reception and year 1 children (those aged 4-6), plus year 6 children (those aged 10-11). The actual practicalities of teaching for these children are being worked out ‘live’, but they are intended to include all appropriate protective procedures including attempting distancing.
Secondary schools will not see a proper return to school before the summer holidays. They are expected to provide some limited ‘face-to-face activity’ for years 10 and 12, the two cohorts that will take exams for key high-stakes qualifications next year. There is currently very little guidance on what that activity should involve.
What does the future hold?
The message from contrasting developments in Denmark, Italy and England is probably representative of the global situation.
First, the strategy towards re-opening schools – in terms of both timing and how it should be done – will vary a great deal from country to country. It is not only the impact and timing of the Covid-19 pandemic that varies across countries, but also the institutional setting.
Important factors include medical and public health preparedness, the ability of schools to deliver effective online teaching, and the implications for schools of the labour supply of parents. For example, comparing the three countries discussed here: in Denmark in 2019, 84% of working households with dependent children have all adults working, in Italy the figures is 55% and in the UK 75%. The social and economic costs of keeping schools closed will vary equally substantially.
Second, children will not return to school as it was before the crisis, but to a ‘new normal’. That new normal is likely to include various measures to reduce infection risk with high demands on the children, their teachers and the school administrators. How long the new normal remains in place we cannot yet know.
Where can I find out more?
Schools, skills, and learning: the impact of COVID-19 on education: Simon Burgess and Hans Sievertsen discuss what can be done to mitigate negative impacts of lockdown: major (and likely unequal) interruption in students’ learning; disruptions in internal assessments; and the cancellation of public assessments for qualifications or their replacement by an inferior alternative.
Filling in the blanks: national research needs to guide decisions about reopening schools in the United States: Johns Hopkins University report listing a number of other key scientific questions that are currently unanswered.
A framework to guide an education response to the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020: OECD/PISA report.
Coronavirus school closures: what do they mean for student equity and inclusion? An OECD comment by Lucie Cerna.
Designing reopening strategies in the aftermath of COVID-19 lockdowns: some principles with an application to Denmark: Torben Andersen, Philipp Schröder and Michael Svarer present a tool that captures the trade-off between health and economic concerns and can guide the design of re-opening strategies.