The following is an excerpt from Reopening the World: How to Save Lives and Livelihoods, a new report where Brookings experts offer ideas to help policymakers protect lives and save livelihoods in the midst of the current COVID-19 pandemic.
The COVID-19 pandemic has caused sudden and unprecedented changes to education around the world, impacting more than 1.5 billion students from preschool through higher-ed. In March 2020, for the first time in history, almost all the world’s schools closed their doors, leaving millions of children without formal access to learning. The closure of schools is testing education systems’ readiness and capacity to maintain student engagement and learning, and shedding renewed light on inequities that exist across and within countries that create barriers to quality education, especially for the most marginalized.
Throughout the world, the impact of school closures on student learning will vary by socioeconomic status and the extent to which schools and school systems have the capacity to provide quality education remotely. As I reported in a recent analysis of school closures and government responses to COVID-19, the learning gap between rich and poor will likely grow during the pandemic—not just between high- and low-income countries, but also between high- and low-income regions and communities within countries.
As policymakers plan to reopen schools, learning from other countries’ experiences that have already reopened will be especially useful. In this piece, I review the experiences of Denmark and Finland, two of the first countries to plan for a gradual reopening of K–12 schools. Rather than drawing specific lessons or recommendations at this early stage, my goal is to share insights and raise questions to guide policymakers as they plan to reopen schools after the COVID-19 closures.
Throughout the world, the impact of school closures on student learning will vary by socioeconomic status and the extent to which schools and school systems have the capacity to provide quality education remotely.
WHAT FACTORS WERE MOST IMPORTANT IN REOPENING SCHOOLS?
In Denmark, the decision of when and how to reopen schools was made by the central government together with the Parliament. This allowed for municipal councils (similar to school districts in the U.S.) to develop their own plans, and school leaders and teachers to do the same for each individual school based on guidelines from the National Board of Health. The legal right to quality education factored heavily in the decision to reopen. When announcing the reopening of schools, the government recognized that “in current circumstances, schools and municipalities cannot guarantee that children receive the education in all subjects for which they are entitled.”
Finland had a similar decision-making process. Minister of Education Li Andersson tweeted that to extend the school closures, the government would have to prove that opening schools would be unavoidable in the current situation and was “a matter of weighing basic rights.” Given the country had contained the spread of COVID-19, the message was that children’s right to education outweighed the health risk of going back to school.
In addition, both countries’ governments considered the equity implications of school closures and reopening. In Finland, according to a news report, the government emphasized that “the right to basic education is a subjective right laid down in the Constitution and belongs equally to everyone.” In Denmark, as secondary students spent much of the term learning remotely, end-of-year assessments were suspended for the school year. The main reason provided for suspending these assessments was to avoid increasing inequality between those students (many of whom are immigrants) who have not been able to get help from school or at home.
STAGGERING REOPENING: WHO SHOULD RETURN TO SCHOOL FIRST?
In reopening their economies, decision-makers are faced with the critical question of what services and sectors to open first. For education policymakers, a key decision is when and how to reopen preschools and primary schools, secondary schools, and higher education institutions.
In Denmark and Finland, the decision to gradually reopen included staggering by age, with schools for the youngest children reopening first. The main factor underlying the decision was the emerging evidence indicating that children play a small role in spreading the virus. In Denmark, preschools, early childhood care centers for the youngest children, and primary grades 0–5 (equivalent to K–5 in the U.S.) were reopened on April 15. In Finland, on April 29, the government announced the reopening of early childhood education and care, as well as primary and lower education (grades 1–9) on May 1 of this year. In Denmark, the central government announced that municipalities may open secondary schools (grades 6–10) on May 18.
WHAT HEALTH AND SAFETY MEASURES NEED TO TAKE PLACE IN SCHOOLS?
Once the decision on which schools to reopen first is made, a clear plan must first and foremost prioritize the health and safety of students, educators, and families. In both countries, a number of public health measures were put in place. Among these, schools prohibited the usual morning meetings held in classes at the beginning of the school day, forbade food sharing, and introduced new preventative practices like staggered student arrivals and much more frequent cleaning and handwashing practices throughout the day. In Denmark, where average class sizes were around 20 students prior to COVID-19, classes were divided into two to three smaller groups and, whenever possible, held outside. It is worth briefly noting that the Copenhagen Teacher Association raised significant concerns over dividing the classroom into smaller groups, as it increased teachers’ work hours and created staffing shortages.
More specifically, Denmark introduced new health and safety measures for schools, including: (1) In the classroom, students must be seated at tables that are at least two meters (6.5 feet) apart; (2) students must handwash every two hours; and (3) all educational materials and equipment must be cleaned twice a day. In some schools, additional toilets and sinks were installed. To minimize risk of contagion, many schools reduced their number of hours or remained closed some days. Parents now drop off students at staggered times, sometimes using different school entrances, and are not allowed inside school buildings. In addition, any child or parent who presents even minor symptoms must not attend school. Importantly, children, parents, and teachers at increased risk due to existing health conditions are asked not to attend school.
Given schools’ reduced capacity to serve students due to these health and safety measures, the government of Denmark asked families to keep their children at home when at least one parent does not work. In addition, other community resources are being tapped: Community parks are now reserved for young children between the school hours (8 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.), and other buildings are made available to schools, including hotels, banks, conference centers, museums, and libraries.
WHAT TO EXPECT AFTER SCHOOLS REOPEN?
The decision to reopen schools needs to build in processes not only to monitor health outcomes but also to support school leaders and teachers as they gradually serve more students. Opening new communication channels to address questions as they arise is a first step. In Denmark, the Ministry of Children and Education established a coronavirus hotline for schools to receive direct support on education-specific issues, such as when and how to assess student learning and how to make use of public spaces for learning. This hotline is in addition to a general government coronavirus hotline. The Danish National Board of Health prepared a guide for school administrators and informational materials for teachers and students, including brochures, posters, and videos. Similarly, the Finnish National Agency for Education established an email box for education providers, schools, and organizations with international education programs to receive advice on the coronavirus and education services.
Another important issue for consideration is whether to require students to return to school once they reopen or to let families decide what is best given their specific circumstances. In Denmark, families are allowed to decide when to send their children back to school. To aid parents in the decision to send children to school, the Danish Pediatric Society issued guidelines explaining what underlying health conditions may put children at risk. But the Government of Denmark also mandated that students who stay at home must receive emergency education in the form of remote education. By contrast in Finland, Prime Minister Sanna Marin noted that once schools reopen, local authorities and schools could not continue with remote education, and students wishing to stay home to complete the school year would need special permission.
In addition, given the likelihood that new breakouts of the coronavirus will happen in the near future, decision-makers need to provide support to better prepare schools to move to distance learning on short notice. School leaders, teachers, and students should reflect on what worked and what did not work well during the distance learning period and plan to make adjustments in the future. Governments should ensure that all students have access to devices and internet connectivity to access online learning while schools remain closed.
Finally, and to end with a more hopeful note, the gradual reopening of schools after the crisis provides an unparalleled opportunity to rethink the day-to-day experiences of students and teachers. With students having had to take a lead role in their own learning and teachers having had to adapt to remote teaching, we hope that upon returning to school the interactions between teachers and students will be more engaging, with teachers spending less time teaching and more time facilitating students’ inquiry and problemsolving skills.
*I am grateful to Anne Sofie Westh Olsen for her support in accessing background information on Denmark.