Strategies for reopening schools internationally

According to UNESCO monitoring, 71 countries have announced the reopening of their schools. Of these, 12 have already reopened. 52, including France, have decided on a reopening date during the current school year, and 7 have postponed the reopening to the following year. 128 countries have not yet announced dates.

Why reopen schools? Which international organisations are involved? What are the differences in approaches between countries? This article provides a brief overview.

This article is part of a contributory watch, and I should point out that I am not a journalist.

If you spot an inaccuracy, or if you have additional information, please contact me, and I will add to this article. Thank you for your kindness.

UNESCO gives a global vision and recalls the importance of reopening schools

In Western countries, teachers and other education professionals have from the outset testified to the many effects of school closures: exacerbated social inequalities, drop-out children with whom the bond becomes distended to the point of breaking, lack of socialization, resurgence of stress. In some countries, there is even talk of the fear that some young people will join gangs (in England, for example).

This is the case of the richest, most developed Western countries. But what about poorer countries? Several international organizations working closely with UNESCO point out the reasons that make it even more imperative to reopen schools there. They are a rather violent reminder of the immense inequality among children in the world:

The longer marginalized children are out of school, the less likely they are to return

Robert Jenkins, Chief of Education at UNICEF, and Jaime Saavedra Chanduvi, Global Director for Education at the World Bank

Rising inequality, poor health outcomes, violence, child labour and child marriage are just some of the long-term threats for children who miss out on school

Henrietta Fore, UNICEF Executive Director

It is always disturbing to remember that in poor countries, malnutrition remains a scourge, and that school is often the only place where healthy and nutritious food is distributed. It is even more shocking to realize that this is also the case in rich countries. I was particularly shaked by the reality in the United States and the United Kingdom, but this situation can be found everywhere, including France.

In the poorest countries, children often rely on schools for their only meal of the day. But with many schools now closed because of COVID, 370 million children are missing out on these nutritious meals which are a lifeline for poor families. They are also being denied the health support they normally get through school.

David Beasley, Director of the World Food Bank

Whatever the disparities between countries, the decision to reopen schools is therefore not just an educational issue. In many countries, it is also a public health issue.

A framework to guide policy action

Four organizations, UNESCO, UNICEF, the World Food Bank and the World Bank have published a guide on reopening schools. The five-page document thus includes several dimensions:

  • Temporal: before reopening, during the reopening process, after reopening
  • Themes: Safe operations, focus on learning, well-being and protection, reaching the most marginalized

The framework can be downloaded at this address.

Some commonalities and lessons learned from school reopenings

Disorganization, the difficulty of organizing the different actors, of getting actors who are not used to communicate. Clearly, the key words are “resourcefulness, agility, ingenuity, creativity”. This therefore puts the headteachers in the foreground!

Draconian and anxiety-provoking sanitary protocols, which seem very complex if not impossible to follow: cleaning of classrooms several times a day, impossibility to use educational resources (games, books, etc.), enforcing barrier gestures in corridors, toilets, wearing of masks in some countries, etc.

Teachers’ incomprehension in the face of several injunctions: to get back the students who dropped out, to keep the children busy so that their parents can go back to work, to “save” the school year. These injunctions do not always seem to be consistent with the reopening arrangements: choices in the priority classes, opening procedures, children who are really coming back to school… When they are told that the school must reopen to limit dropping out, but on the basis of voluntary work by parents, teachers retort that the pupils who will not come are precisely those who are most at risk of dropping out. Between economic recovery and educational recovery, teachers point out the inconsistencies.

The fear and anxiety of parents, torn between conflicting information and desires: to return to work, to allow their children to regain social interaction, not to lose a school year, to avoid being contaminated… On this subject, the multiple contradictory studies add to the anxiety.

The lack (absence?) of children’s voices. There are too few testimonies of what the children think of this reopening. And yet, this situation also conditions their future, be it educational, economic, sanitary, ecological. In the very superficial testimonies that I have been able to read, they seem very happy to find their friends again. But do they understand the situation? Does it make sense for them to continue the school year? Do they feel safe? How do they feel about teaching under the conditions provided for in the health protocols? What would they like to do? What are their ideas, based on their understanding of the virus and the barrier gestures to be respected?

The reopening strategies of certain countries


A classroom ready to welcome about fifteen students. Free picture by Cédric C (@teamaaz)
  • Return date: from 11 May
  • Order of return: primary schools first, middle schools then high schools


  • The communities, which were very vocal in their opposition to the accelerated reopening (see this opinion column, in French, for example), were finally left quite free in organizing the return to classes. Although imperfect, consultation seems to be more extensive and centralization less firm.
  • Communication remains (very) complicated between many actors who are not used to regular exchanges: Ministry of National Education, local authorities (region, departments, schools), school principals, teachers, parents.
  • The situations are also very dependent on the architecture of schools, the regions where the virus is more or less widespread, and the sociology of parents and their children.
  • Many teachers and school principals feel that it is impossible to maintain the health protocols (see this opinion column of the Café Pédagogique).
  • The question of responsibility is also a complex and terrifying subject for those involved in education. Who is responsible in case of infection: the teacher, the school principal, the inspector, the mayor? On this subject, read the article by Laurent Hazan, lawyer at the Court, specialized in the functional protection of teachers .


As part of the deconfinement strategy, it was decided to open schools and educational establishments, gradually, from 11 May 2020 for nursery and elementary schools and from 18 May 2020 for secondary schools, in strict compliance with the prescriptions issued by the health authorities.

Source: Ministry of Education website

The national doctrine is clear, but some leeway is given at the local level for the physical adaptation of these modalities.

Jean-Michel Blanquer, Minister of National Education

I wonder about the risks associated with this reopening compared to the benefits: the number of hours of classes will be very low by the beginning of July, knowing that students will necessarily have lighter schedules. What does this weigh against the risk of spreading the virus to families already affected by health problems and living in a medical desert? Honestly, it’s more of a social dressing down than a real social argument.

Solène, professor in Seine-Saint-Denis


  • Return date: some schools have already opened
  • Order of return: some classes return in priority, because they started school in April, because they have to prepare their entrance exams for “Junior high school”, or because they are in their last year.


  • The Japanese government includes in its reopening strategy the objective of keeping in line with worldwide academic calendars so as not to risk losing international students, and so that their own students are not penalized.
  • As of April 22, about 95% of schools were still closed, according to a Ministry of Education survey.


“If all schools follow the measures of the hardest-hit municipalities, classes will increasingly fall behind schedule,” Hagiuda said, urging local authorities to reopen schools if possible based on their own judgment.

Koichi Hagiuda, Education Minister

United Kingdom

  • Return date: June 1 (unofficial date)
  • Order of return: primary schools would be prioritized.


  • Very cautiously, the United Kingdom advocates a step-by-step opening of schools, with as much information as possible communicated to “headteachers” (school principals).
  • No official date has yet been announced, although 1 June is mentioned in a report.
  • The government is investing £100 million in IT equipment and support for young people affected by the ‘digital divide’.
  • The issue of food vouchers poses real problems due to multiple delays.
  • Education policy in the United Kingdom is the responsibility of the national administration. Scotland, for example, is dissociating itself from England’s strategy, and has no plans to reopen its institutions at present.


It is incredibly important that we get the right balance in terms of actually making sure that we create an environment that is good to learn in but also that is a safe environment for people to both work in and learn in as well

Gavin Williamson, education secretary

One of the things we want to do as fast as we can is get certainly primary schools back. […] It’s not going to be easy but that’s where we want to go. It’s about working out a way to do it.

Boris Johnson, Prime Minister

[Nicola Sturgeon] said that any return to education would have to involve a blend of at-home and in-school learning, with certain year groups going back ahead of others: in particular those transitioning to secondary school and preparing for exams.

Nicola Sturgeon, first Minister of Scotland


  • Return date: April 16
  • Order of return: youngest first


  • The Danes reopened among the first. Their health protocols have therefore inspired neighbouring countries: division of groups by three, arrivals at different times, hand washing, etc.
  • Classes in Denmark normally have an average of 20 pupils. Breaking them up into smaller groups therefore seems easier, especially since the teaching staff are assisted by assistants.
  • Danish children must be self-sufficient in their food, drink and materials (pencils). When we see that in other countries children depend on school to have access to nutritious food, we can see that we are in another world.
  • The lack of protective equipment, feared by parents and teachers, has not been a problem for Dorte Lange, vice-president of the teachers’ union. Medical advice has indeed focused on respecting barrier gestures, isolating pupils in groups, and a strong awareness of hygiene.


We are glad to say the re-opening up to now has been quite successful

We can see many of the older students are not thriving at home. They really need to be back in the community of the school

Dorte Lange, vice president of the Danish Union of Teachers

Honk Kong

  • Return date: May 27 (if the situation continues to improve), then June 8.
  • Order of return: first senior secondary students, then younger secondary students and older primary school pupils.


  • In Hong Kong, students have been confined to their homes since the beginning of February and most have switched to e-learning.
  • Here too, the strategy is to start by bringing back students who have to take exams (e.g. Diploma of Secondary Education). From the oldest on 27 May to the youngest on 15 June.
  • The resumption will be on a half-day basis to allow for social distancing. The schools are therefore reviewing their timetables to allow students to catch up on the four months of classroom breaks.
  • The Ministry of Education also plans to provide health protocols 3 weeks before classes resume, to give the schools time to get organized.
  • As in China, a classroom could be provided for children with symptoms such as coughing. Their parents would then be notified so that they could quickly test their child.


Teachers will also assess pupils’ learning progress when they meet face-to-face, so we can decide whether we need to make changes to the teaching syllabus

Cheung Yung-pong of the Aided Primary School Heads Association

Canada / Québec

Photo: Renaud Philippe Le Devoir
  • Return date: May 11 in Quebec
  • Order of return: primary school students


  • As in many countries, the question of lack of staff arises where classes are divided into three sub-groups. In Quebec, there is a lack of space for childcare.
  • It seems that a specific feature of Quebec is the high attendance expected when schools reopen. It would reach 80% in some regions, as opposed to the 50% expected. Hence a shortage of premises and staff.
  • This specificity can be explained by the fact that the region has been little affected by the virus.
  • As in France, a large number of teachers have expressed their anxiety at the idea of teaching in anxiety-provoking sanitary conditions.

Thanks to Ninon Louise LePage for her many contributions to my Quebec newswatch 🙂

Photo by Yucel Moran on Unsplash


  • Return date: in September
  • Return order: not specified


  • The decision not to reopen the schools, according to the Minister of Education, is based on the recommendations of a scientific committee. It should be noted that the French scientific committee had issued the same recommendation.
  • In Italy, the government has already decided to invest in education, which is seen as having a crucial role to play in the process of recovery from the crisis. A very large number of new recruits are thus planned.
  • The crisis has shaken up the Italian education system, which is particularly conservative, on issues of pedagogy, evaluation and reporting to grades in particular (read this article on this subject).


We are hiring 24,000 teachers, encouraging young people to join the teaching profession and starting the school year with a massive initiative of remedial classes.

Lucia Azzolina, ministre de l’Éducation de l’Italie


  • Return date: April 27th
  • Order of return: students from collège/lycées who are taking their MSA (equivalent to the brevet) and their Abitur (equivalent to the baccalaureate)


  • In Germany, each Land has its own specific strategy for the spread of the virus, its population, its educational policy, etc.
  • The schoolchildren returned on 4 April, after the middle and high school students who finally allowed the health protocols to be tested. Some of them were moved by this, believing that they were not “guinea pigs”.
  • The instructions were given by the authorities (of the Länder) to the establishments, which then had to improvise.
  • Programmes are planned to accompany pupils during the summer holidays.
  • Christian Drosten, a virologist from Berlin who advises the government, has published a new study showing that children transmit the virus as much as adults, which has particularly confused and anguished parents.

To go further

And as always, to all teachers, school principals, and all those involved in the school as a whole:

Featured photo by LOGAN WEAVER on Unsplash

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