Each morning before Chengbao Shang leaves for school in Guangzhou, China, his parents take the 7-year-old’s temperature and send the results to his teacher using a program on WeChat, the popular Chinese social media platform. It’s the same for every student in this city of more than 15 million.
Chengbao’s father then drives him to school and drops him off 20 yards away from the campus. Chengbao, a first-grade student, gets his temperature taken again when he approaches the front gate of the school, this time by security guards. He and his classmates enter one-by-one, walking about three feet apart. He then goes to his classroom, where 51 students sit at their own desks, also three feet from their closest classmates.
“I really enjoy the classes and I can play with my classmates and friends. I can hear stories from my teachers,” he said during a conversation over WeChat. “And I feel safer and safer slowly.”
In California, it remains unclear how students will ultimately return to the classroom amid the coronavirus pandemic. However, schools that have opened in China, Belgium and the Netherlands — as well as in remote areas of America — provide insights into what may lie ahead.
EdSource conducted interviews by phone and email with students, parents and administrators in a sampling of overseas and rural American schools to learn how they are reopening in the face of the coronavirus pandemic.
In many cases, the precautions taken overseas mirror what education officials in California have said to expect next year: regular temperature checks, physical distancing, hybrid schedules and even new restrictions on eating lunch.
But no matter how careful the plans, schools may have to close again, as happened in Beijing this month following a new outbreak of the coronavirus. Schools in China’s capital were abruptly closed earlier this month. An elementary school student in Beijing’s Xicheng district was among those who tested positive for Covid-19.
Chengbao’s school reopened in April for older students, but he and other students in his grade didn’t return until May 25. To minimize the risk of the virus, the school has hired more doctors and other health staff and required all teachers and other staff to be tested for the virus before schools reopened.
When the school initially reopened, students had to wear masks while inside the school, but that requirement was lifted on May 31.
“Before the school reopened, I was a little worried, and I even asked my wife, ‘How about we delay sending the kid to school for a week?’” said Chengbao’s father, Yakun Shang. “But we decided to send him back on time. I worried since there were many students in one big class. What if someone catches a cold? But now, I feel less worried. Since the school reopened, they are doing well.”
About 80 miles south of Guangzhou, in Hong Kong, high schooler Ansel Zhang, 17, and his classmates are required to wear masks every day.
Like Chengbao, Ansel also has to take his own temperature before school. He has to record the results and have a parent sign off on them.
The most dangerous part of Ansel’s day is getting to and from his private school, he said. He takes Hong Kong’s subway system and, especially in the afternoon when he goes home, it is crowded, “with no social distancing at all,” he said.
“That’s the part of my day when there is the biggest chance of getting infected,” he added.
At most public schools in Hong Kong, students must apply hand sanitizer that is between 70% and 80% alcohol. They are also required to stay three feet apart from one another. Students sit in single rows, with nobody seated side by side. Facilities that are shared, such as computer rooms and libraries, can only be accessed by a small batch of students at a time. Cafeteria service has mostly been suspended, with students bringing their own lunches.
Custodians rigorously clean and disinfect the school throughout the day. Wearing masks, gloves, eye protection and caps, they use diluted bleach to disinfect surfaces and leave the bleach on surfaces for at least 15 minutes. Computers used by students are disinfected twice a day.
As a 12th-grader, Ansel goes to school all day. But for many lower grades, the days are only half as long as normal to allow custodians extra time to clean. However, those schools remain open to accommodate parents who can’t take care of their children at home during school hours.
“In a way I’m happy that it’s going back to normal, but I miss sleeping in until 9:30,” Ansel said of returning to school.
Safety protocols aren’t quite as strict at schools in some countries in Europe, including Belgium and the Netherlands.
At 5-year-old Wilson Gao’s school in Amsterdam, the capital of the Netherlands, there is no physical distancing required between the eight students in classrooms, said his father, Peng Gao. Students and teachers also are not mandated to wear masks.
However, students in Gao’s class must wash their hands frequently and are allowed to interact only with other students in the class. They can’t mingle at all with students in other classes.
The same is true in Ghent, Belgium, for Liselot Hudders’ children Elias, Senne and Jade Blanckaert, who are all enrolled in primary school, which is similar to elementary school.
Since returning to school, they have been required to remain in their classroom “bubbles” each day, Hudders said. Even recess is limited to one class at a time.
The school enrolls about 300 students and has set up different entrances into the school for each individual class.
For larger classes, including Jade’s, the school has implemented hybrid schedules, with half the students coming in two days a week and the second half attending two other days.
The school is closed on Wednesday to allow custodians to deeply sanitize the campus.
The students don’t get their temperatures checked at school, but parents are not allowed to send their children to school if they don’t feel well. If a student displays symptoms consistent with the coronavirus while at school, they are immediately sent home, Hudders said.
The school also isn’t providing lunches, so students must bring their own, and they have to eat lunch in their classrooms.
Hudders said her children were thrilled to return to school, even with the changes.
“I think it’s a very good idea that the school is open again because it was not easy for the children being home. They were really isolated,” she said.
Back in the United States, schools in parts of the country that aren’t densely populated also have reopened in recent weeks with stringent safety requirements. Across the country, including in California, the number of confirmed coronavirus cases have been significantly lower in rural areas than in urban and suburban areas.
Like in Belgium, the school has reopened with a split schedule, said Monica White, a co-founder of the school. Half of the students come to school on Monday and Wednesday, while the other half come Tuesday and Thursday. On days when students aren’t physically on campus, they take their Chromebooks home and have homework to complete.
White described the risk to students as “relatively low.” There have been 684 confirmed cases of the virus in Canyon County, where Caldwell is located.
White said it was important to reopen the school because Elevate Academy, being a career and technical school, emphasizes hands-on learning that can’t be replicated virtually.
The school sends a staff member on every bus route and checks the temperatures of students before they get on the bus to come to school. Students who are dropped off in cars also have their temperatures checked before entering the school.
If a student were to show a high body temperature, they would be required to stay home until at least 72 hours after their symptoms have dissipated. The same rule applies to staff members. So far, the school hasn’t had any such cases, White said.
The school has also ramped up its cleaning and sanitation protocols. It has hired an extra custodian whose “sole purpose is to go around all day and disinfect commonly used surfaces,” White said. Every teacher also now has access to extra cleaning supplies, so they can routinely disinfect their classrooms.
One of the easier transitions for Elevate Academy has been requiring students to stay at a distance from one another. The average class size is six students and no class has more than 10 students. Classes are also held in large shops, since Elevate is a technical school with classes such as welding, manufacturing and construction.
At lunchtime, each table in the cafeteria is limited to half capacity, and many students eat lunch outside.
The school purchased reusable masks for every student but requires them to be worn only at certain times, such as when students come within six feet of teachers or their classmates. Masks are not mandated at other times because they can interfere with learning, White said. For example, the school enrolls students who are hearing-impaired and rely on reading lips.
“We’re trying to strike the balance with that and make sure the kids are still getting what they need while they’re here,” White said.
One of the first public school districts to reopen in the U.S. was Premont Independent School District in Premont, Texas, a rural town in the southern part of the state.
The K-12 district, which enrolls just more than 600 students, reopened June 1 for a batch of about 100 students. Another group of students returned to in-person classes on June 15. The school will close June 30 for the summer and reopen the first week of August.
The district’s superintendent, Steve VanMatre, said it was left to each teacher to determine which students should return to school. In most cases, those invited back were students who didn’t participate in online learning when classes went virtual, or students who were at risk of not receiving course credits.
As in Idaho, students at Premont have their temperature taken before getting on the bus to come to school. They sit one student to a seat on the bus, compared to three per seat in the past. Two adults also ride each bus to make sure students comply with those rules.
When students arrive at campus, school officials again take their temperature. So far, one student has displayed symptoms consistent with the virus. That student, who showed up with a cough, was sent home and asked to isolate for two weeks.
VanMatre said the district is currently unable to test students for the virus, but would be eager to do so if tests became available to them. If the district did test students and one tested positive, VanMatre said he “can’t imagine doing anything other than” shutting down that school.
Inside the schools, there are no more than 11 students per classroom, who sit at least six feet apart from one another. Masks are required for teachers at all times and for students whenever they are in the hallway. Students have the option of wearing masks in class.
Because of the need to keep safe distances, instruction looks vastly different. Unlike before the pandemic, just about every aspect of instruction is delivered with students using Chromebooks.
“You don’t see the one-to-one tutoring interaction that you would normally see,” VanMatre said.
Lunch is also served in the classroom, and there is no gym class, recess or anything else that isn’t essential.
So far, students have impressed VanMatre with how well they have complied with the safety protocols. He said he can’t remember his students ever following rules as well as they have followed the new guidelines since schools reopened.
“I don’t know if they were just so anxious to come back to school that they would have jumped through any hoop, but we were happy to see them and I think they were happy to see us,” he said.
EdSource editor Ken Howe contributed to this report.