In March, school shutdowns around the globe caused 1.5 billion children to begin schooling from home, representing over 91% of children, UNESCO estimates.
Here in the U.S., conversations about the state of school reopenings have hit a fever pitch as August quickly approaches. Many parents—some 71% in Education Next’s 2020 poll—feel their children learned less this spring than they would have had schools remained open.
As Science magazine reports, over 20 countries reopened schools in June, and some, like Taiwan, Nicaragua, and Sweden, never closed them to begin with. Day cares remained open for essential workers in many countries, and although there are exceptions, outbreaks have generally been rare.
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To be sure, there have been some cases of outbreaks at schools that have reopened. As Jennifer Couzin-Frankel, Gretchen Vogel, and Meagan Weiland report in Science, more than 150 students and 25 staff members contracted the virus at a joint middle/high school in Jerusalem, and 96 students and teachers caught the virus at a New Zealand high school before that country’s lockdown went into effect.
Additionally, two day care centers in Canada saw spikes among staff and reclosed.
Overall, however, the data suggest that it is rare for children to develop severe symptoms if they contract the virus, and it is rare for them to spread the virus if they do get it.
That is why many countries, particularly in Europe, have at least partially reopened schools. Here is a sample of what countries around the world are doing when it comes to reopening:
- Australia. In the state of New South Wales, schools reopened for in-person classes one day per week in early May, combined with virtual learning the four remaining days. Individual schools were able to decide how to best schedule those classes. On May 25, schools reopened full time.
- Austria. Schools have reopened, and masks are no longer required because “officials observed little spread within schools.”
- Canada. In Quebec, schools reopened in May and children socialize in groups of six. Science reports that while 53 students and teachers contracted the virus, “officials believed many of those infections were contracted in the community.”
- Denmark. Denmark was the first country in Europe to reopen schools, doing so on April 15. Schools in Denmark do as much class time outside as possible, and children are divided into small groups, nicknamed “pods,” of around 12 students.
- Finland. Finland reopened schools in May and have retained their standard class size, but have kept classes separated from each other and staggered reopening by age. Finnish officials “found no evidence of school spread and no change in the rate of infection” for students under 16.
- France. French schools reopened in mid-May on a voluntary basis. Research out of France suggests that when children do contract the disease, they are contracting it at home, rather than in school. French schools are planning to fully reopen in September.
- Germany. In German schools, which reopened in May on a part-time basis, if a student or staff member contracts the virus, “classmates and teachers of an infected student are sent home for two weeks, but other classes continue.”
- Israel. Schools fully reopened in May in Israel, and classes are full, but students wear masks. Individual schools close temporarily if a student or staff member contracts the virus.
- Japan. Japan began reopening schools in June. Parents must take their children’s temperature every morning and provide a report to the schools. Children attend on alternating days, and teachers and students wear masks.
- Netherlands. The Netherlands reopened in May but halved their class sizes. Schools did not require social distancing for students under 12.
- Sweden. Schools in Sweden never closed for young children, nor did they make major adjustments to their day-to-day operations or reduce class size. Although Sweden’s death rate is high compared to its European neighbors, Sweden’s chief epidemiologist says “there’s little evidence schools exacerbated the outbreak.”
In countries with high infection rates, like India and Brazil, schools remain closed and local governments will likely determine when schools reopen on a case-by-case basis.
In the U.S., the Trump administration has called on schools to reopen this fall. President Donald Trump suggested last week that schools could lose access to federal funding (which only makes up just 8.5% of all K-12 school revenue) if they do not reopen.
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos suggested that rather than withholding federal funds, those dollars should simply follow students to the schools of the family’s choice that are open—a smart policy response.
For their part, the teachers unions and other special-interest groups are demanding hundreds of billions of dollars in new spending to reopen schools. The American Federation of Teachers has demanded Congress spend $116 billion on K-12 school reopening, “close to the amount the U.S. dedicated to the Marshall Plan to rebuild Europe after World War II,” Corey DeAngelis of Reason Foundation points out.
By framing the conversation as a battle between federal officials and special-interest groups, the debate shifts away from those it impacts the most—local schools and families—as my colleague Jonathan Butcher observes.
Decisions about reopening schools need to be driven by school leaders and parents, and based on local factors.
If public school districts remain closed, do a poor job of transitioning online, or do not meet the needs of families in this COVID-19 era, parents should be able to take their money elsewhere.
States should provide emergency education savings accounts to families to enable them to enroll their children at schools of their choice that are open or are providing quality online instruction.