Back to school: lessons from around the world

As India joins 100+ countries worldwide where children are attending in-person school, we look at some global best practices

September 23, 2021 12:01 pm | Updated September 24, 2021 07:08 pm IST

Students going back to school

Students going back to school

When we moved back from India to Lagos, Nigeria, late last year, my daughters, aged 15 and 10, were both very happy to finally be able to attend their respective schools again, in-person, having had online classes in India for the past seven months. However, the older one contracted Covid-19 within three weeks of joining school (as did several other children). But my younger daughter’s school hasn’t had a single case in six months of offering in-person learning. While setting up protocols is important, implementing them diligently is the only way to stay infection-free.

With more than 14 states in India having re-opened schools, we look at some best practices from countries that have already traversed the back-to-physical-school journey.

United States

Use of masks: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) updated its guidelines in early August and “recommends universal indoor masking for all teachers, staff, students, and visitors to K-12 schools, regardless of vaccination status”. According to WHO guidelines, children who are in general good health can wear a non-medical or fabric mask (which must be washed daily).

Protocols: The US Department of Education has published two volumes of the Covid-19 Handbook . Volume 1 (Strategies for Safely Reopening Elementary and Secondary Schools) specifies that “school leaders should establish protocols for how and when masks should be removed and where removed masks should be placed under conditions of physical distancing during meals.”

Co-horts/pods/bubbles: “At my kids’ elementary school, each class is a ‘pod’, even on the playground,” says author Ramsey Hootman, who lives in the San Francisco Bay Area, US, and is mum to two kids, in years 3 and 6. “The school has divided the yard into three or four sections and has staggered recess times. So each class is assigned to one ‘section’ of the playground for an entire week, and then the next week they rotate.”

A teacher measuring and marking places in the classroom

A teacher measuring and marking places in the classroom

Ventilation: According to the Covid-19 Handbook 1 , schools should “improve ventilation to the greatest extent possible, including, minimally, by opening windows and doors and using fans where safe and feasible”. Jenny Ruth Morber, Washington DC-based science journalist and mum to a nine-year-old, says, “My son’s elementary school [The Island School] uses CO2 monitors in the classrooms to quantify ventilation and air quality, and the kids leave the classrooms at least once an hour. There are improved HEPA quality filters in central air ducts, and air exchanges are set to the highest rates.”


Reorienting spaces: Where average class sizes were around 20 students pre Covid, classes are now divided into two to three smaller groups and, whenever possible, held outside, says a report titled Reopening the World: Reopening Schools — Insights from Denmark and Finland by Emiliana Vegas.

Hong Kong

Social distancing: The Education Bureau stipulates that “for classrooms of primary and secondary schools, in principle, schools should arrange students to sit in single rows with a ‘face-to-back’ setting... Desks set side-by-side in the classrooms in double rows should be rearranged to single rows.”

Adopting new routines: “When school restarted last year, there were two shifts [8 am to 12 pm and 12pm to 3 pm] and children did a combination of off-site and onsite learning, but from this academic session [August 2021] schools are now on full day,” says Charu Dutt, entrepreneur, whose kids are 7 and 13.

Being responsible: “We have to take the child’s temperature and enter it into the school app every morning,” adds Dutt. “School starts at 8.20 am and if the temperature information hasn’t been uploaded by 7.55 am, we receive a message saying the child cannot attend school.”

Face masks are a must

Face masks are a must


Creating new routines: “In my daughter’s school, they staggered start times for different year groups [instead of the 8.20 am start, they began from 7.30 am all the way until 9.15 am, which also meant a staggered finish]. They also staggered the lunch hour so everybody would not be in the cafeteria at the same time,” says London-based Smriti Jha, executive director, Morgan Stanley, and mum to a 15-year-old. “All the children have been given rapid antigen test kits that they are required to take at home every Sunday and Wednesday,” she says.


Group activities: Sports and co-curricular activities are being conducted, albeit with checks and balances. Onika Mitra, Hamburg-based mum to two kids aged 15 and 14, says, “All kids have to undertake rapid self-tests twice a week in the classroom, but if they opt for any indoor activity clubs post-school, then they have to take a test at a government-certified Corona kiosk and show the report before entering. If my daughter is horse-riding, she doesn’t need this test since the activity is outdoors, but my son has opted for jujutsu [a Japanese martial art], which is held indoors, so he has to take a Covid test each time.”


Co-horts/pods/bubbles: All schools have to abide by the guidelines issued by the Ministry of Education. “At the Singapore American School where my kids study, children are divided into groups of five, and stay in the same group for three weeks, in a bid to limit exposure. After three weeks, they can change,” says Disha Mohan, APAC Consulting Leader with Mercer, and mum to two.

N95 face masks and social distancing

N95 face masks and social distancing

Face shields: While the Ministry of Education recognises that the design of face shields typically leaves a gap between it and the face through which droplets can pass through, it states that it also understands that prolonged wearing of masks is difficult for children/students. It, therefore, allows exemptions for the following: “Children 12 years and below, who may have difficulty wearing and keeping face masks on for a prolonged period of time; and older students who have certified health conditions that may result in breathing or other medical difficulties when a mask is worn for a prolonged period of time. This includes some students with special needs that make it challenging for them to wear face masks.”


Changing routines: In my younger daughter’s school, the dispersal gates have been changed for Primary, Secondary and Senior children to avoid crowding at drop- and pick-up time, and parents/guardians are no longer allowed inside the premises.

Ventilation: The use of air-conditioning has been stopped, and doors and windows are left open through the day.


Home school: Different states have issued their own guidelines. New South Wales, for example, is currently in lockdown, and kids are learning from home. “They will go back to in-person school on October 25, as that’s when we will reach 80% vaccination for the state,” says Mausumi Barooah, conference producer, Sydney. “Now the 12 to 16 year age group has been allowed to get vaccinated, and I reckon that a good 50-60% of children will be vaccinated by the time they go back to classroom learning.”


Vaccines and protocol: “Our school has been given permission to open for preschool and kindergarten starting September 20,” says Kuala Lumpur-based homemaker Neetu Tomar Verma. “All faculty, support staff and contracted services are fully vaccinated, each room is equipped with medical grade air filters, and each room has window and door access for cross-ventilation. Details on pick-up and drop-off, transport, school store hours and canteen services will be communicated to us shortly.”


Home school: Widely commended for its handling of the virus, a report published in titled How to Safely Reopen Colleges and Universities During Covid-19: Experiences from Taiwan , says the government announced that a class should be suspended if one student or staff member tested positive.

“Parents should send multiple masks, especially for younger children who may drop or soil the mask. Also, some children breathe through their mouths and that can wet the mask, which would then harbour more germs. Fabric masks are fine, but should we washed daily; parents can send a Ziploc so children have a proper place to store the mask in case they are removing it to eat. Shields should be the last resort. They provide no seal whatsoever and are not a substitute for a mask,”says Dr Asmita Mahajan, consultant neonatologist and paediatrician, SL Raheja Hospital (a Fortis associate), Mumbai

“The horseshoe [or semi-circle, C style] seating in the classroom would be ideal, if the space allows. Or, instead of having two children per desk, it can be reduced to one child per desk. Depending on the climate, windows should be left open, and fans and exhaust fans kept on. In air-conditioned classrooms, HEPA filters [14 plus or 16 plus; the latter is a medical grade filter] can be installed in the AC itself or an air purifier used in the room with the HEPA filter. Indoor sports and activities should not be started now. However, outdoor sports with minimal or no-contact, such as tennis or badminton are fine,”says Dr Arun Wadhwa, Delhi-based paediatrician

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