People & Money

Open & Close: Schools and the Pandemic Around the World

There is no argument that the new coronavirus pandemic is diminishing every society’s productivity and wealth. What needs a bit more discussion is its impact on tomorrow’s intellectual capital i.e. the impact on millions of students who are forced to stay out of school.  Many schools are delivering lessons remotely using an assortment of virtual meeting applications. But apart from leaving out millions of low-income children who lack access to reliable internet connection and the required gadgets, remote learning isn’t so effective.

According to a survey in Boston, United States, 25% of students who enrolled in virtual learning have never logged in. Also, a third of high school students did not even enrol at all. Kids from low income homes can not be reached due to the lack of resources to participate in remote learning. The situation in Africa is of course much worse.

All over the world, there is a recognition of the need to have children back in school. How to balance this with the need to curtail the spread of the coronavirus is the challenge. We take a look at experiments and policies guiding steps to reopen schools.


Four months after the closure of schools in January 2020, schools were reopened after a significant decline in the rate of infection with strict safety guidelines put in place. A video tutorial and detailed instructions on sanitation protocols were sent to parents and schools. Plastic barriers were used to separate students while they are receiving lessons and eating. Frequent temperature checks and daily decontamination were part of the regime. Yet, schools have had to be closed  again on July 10 after infection cases spiked again in Hong Kong.


After closing all schools on March 16 2020, about 40,000 preschools and primary schools were reopened in the second week of May, followed by high schools the following week. A maximum of 15 students were allowed in a class. Unfortunately, after a week of resumption,70 cases of coronavirus infections were recorded.  The affected schools were immediately closed but President Emmanuel Macron of France insisted that schools, along with bars and restaurants should remain open. Students have to wear facemasks and social distancing of two meters is maintained.


School have been closed since March. There is no official date for school resumption yet but the Federal Government recently released guidelines for safe reopening of schools. These are contained in a fifty-two-page document, covering social distancing, staggered attendance, disinfection of schools, outdoor learning etc. Schools must consider rate of infection in their locations, testing capacity, means of transport and safety of the environments around them. Oyo State announced that schools would reopen in early July but has postponed the reopening to August, 2020. Nigeria has also taken the decision that final year secondary students will not sit the West Africa Senior Secondary Certificate Examinations, WASSCE, a decision that has generated some controversy. Governor Makinde’s plan to reopen schools was also widely panned. Lagos Satte has announced that Senior Secondary School students will resume on August 3, 2020; the state will observe how the reopening goes before allowing students in junior secondary schools to return to school.


Secondary schools reopened in Ghana for the 370,000 writing the West Africa Senior Secondary Certificate Examinations, WASSCE in early June. (Nigeria took the decision to cancel the examination). Ghana has restricted classrooms to only 30 students, suggesting an inability to implement safe social distancing. Ghana reported that 55 persons out of 314 staff and students tested for the coronavirus were positive. 


Kenya closed all schools in the middle of March, 2020. It has taken an exceptionally blunt approach to preventing the spread of the virus through the school system, announcing in early July that schools will remain shut until January, 2021. Final examinations have been cancelled. The Minister of Education, George Magoha, has said that the school year will be repeated; this applies to public as well as private schools. Universities and secondary schools will be allowed to reopen in September 2020 subject to strict guidelines. This goes against the approach in many other countries where scientific evidence has shown it is safer to allow younger pupils resume school.


South African schools had reopened on July 6 but on Thursday 23rd of July the South African President, Cyril Ramaphosa, announced that all public schools will be closed from Monday 27th of July. By Thursday when he made the announcement, South African rates of coronavirus infection had risen to over 408,000, one of the highest rates in the world and the highest in Africa. Wary of a legal challenge by The Federation of Governing Bodies of SA Schools (Fedsas), the South African Government has allowed “communities”, an euphemism for private schools, to take the decision to reopen schools. Activists have complained that allowing private schools to open will widen inequality.


Schools reopened on 18 May with students attending classes on alternative days to reduce numbers. The Wallonia-Brussels Federation, a sub-national administration also known as the French Community, distributed 850,000 masks to primary and secondary schools before schools reopened. When the Belgian Government authorized a “big wave” of school reopening in June, it scrapped social distancing because it had been demonstrated by then that school children were not infecting each other. When schools reopen in September after the summer holiday, Belgium will allow full-capacity, full-time attendance for pupils under 12 years even if infection rates spike in the country. Only schools attended  by children older than 12 years will be closed if there is a second wave of infection.


Germany is a federation (of states) with different health and education systems; this fact has reflected in decisions to reopen schools. German states started reopening schools in early June, most starting with older pupils who are assumed to be able to easily comply with instructions and who had exams to write. Some states like Saxony conducted antibody tests (to detect asymptomatic coronavirus infections); only 12 out of 2,000 samples returned positive in Saxony, boosting confidence that children are not a significant vector of the virus. But contact games have been banned. The plan is to reopen all schools in late August after the summer holiday.


This first country to reopen schools in Europe. School reopening started with elementary and primary schools in mid-April. There was a two-metre social distancing rule which was reduced to 1-metre and eventually replaced with “protective bubbles” i.e. restricting pupils to assigned spots on playgrounds. Parents are barred from entering schools. Adequate spacing was ensured as gyms, soccer stadia, bars, public parks, and playgrounds were repurposed into learning arenas. Toys and tablets are frequently disinfected and the children’s’ hands washed every two hours.


Sweden never closed its under-16 schools, but social distancing and hygiene rules are constantly practiced.  From June 15, high schools students have returned to school but vocational schools, colleges and universities still remain closed.

Reopening Schools Seems Unaffordable for African Countries

African countries like Ghana and sub-nationals like Lagos and Oyo States seem to be ignoring scientific evidence by allowing older students who are more likely to spread the coronavirus return to school rather than pupils under-12 years who experience has shown pose little risk of spreading the virus. In the US, 24% of the population are children and only 2% have been infected so far. Their hospitalization rate has been 0.001% and very few deaths have been reported.

Implementing safety guidelines comes at a huge cost. According to School Superintendents Association in the United States, $1.8m is required to implement safety guidelines in schools with 3,700 students. The capacity to test, monitor and enforce compliance is very low. Many schools in African countries lack even basic supplies for education such as chairs and chalks; they certainly cannot afford masks, sanitisers and disinfectants. Many schools are poorly regulated and by nature cramped. Kenyan authorities seem to have decided they cannot afford the associated cost of reopening schools. It seems better for schools to stay closed rather than open and infected.

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