What parents need to know about school reopening in the age of coronavirus

Life during the COVID-19 pandemic is difficult for parents and children alike. The return to school is an important and hopefully welcome step, but you and your children likely have many questions

a student showing her work to a teacher in a classroom
10 August 2020

 1.     When and how should schools be reopened?

Globally, we are slowly seeing an increasing number of children return to the classroom. Given the difficulty of the situation and variation across the globe, countries are in different stages regarding how and when they plan to reopen schools. These decisions will usually be made by national governments, under expert guidance of National Committee for Communicable Diseases and often in discussion with local authorities. They will have to consider public health, the benefits and risks for education and other factors. The best interest of every child should be at the centre of these decisions, using the best available evidence, but exactly how this will look will vary from school to school.


2.     What is UNICEF position on when schools should reopen in North Macedonia?

There is overwhelming evidence on the negative impact of school closures on children’s physical and mental health, nutrition, safety and learning. Therefore, what we are calling for is that, schools be among the first services to open when the safety measures are put into place. As the country starts to relax restrictions and reopen in the era of COVID-19, schools should be among the first to open and authorities must give priority to ensuring equal access to quality learning for the most vulnerable children. This requires developing a plan with different modalities that will allow local governments to ensure that all children are either in school learning or access a unified approach to distance learning, or a blended approach of distance and classroom-based learning, starting September 2020; prioritizing investment in continued teacher training and investment in ICT equipment and internet connectivity and investment in ensuring schools can maintain adequate hygiene and physical distancing measures. Without ambitious action on education, and a determined focus on the most vulnerable children, the COVID-19 pandemic will further deepen the ongoing learning crisis, with catastrophic implications for generations of learners, as well as economic productivity and social cohesion.


3.     Is it safe for my child to go back to school?

Schools should only be reopened when it is safe for students, teachers and staff. Going back to school will likely look a little different from what you and your child were used to before. It’s possible that schools may reopen for a period of time and then a decision may be made to close them again temporarily, depending on the local context. Because of the evolving situation, authorities will need to be flexible and ready to adapt to ensure the safety of every child.  


4.     What precautions should the school be taking to prevent COVID-19 virus from spreading? Are schools in North Macedonia prepared?

Schools reopening should be consistent with the country’s overall COVID-19 health response to protect students, staff, teachers and their families. Water and hygiene facilities will be a crucial part of schools reopening safely. 

Some of the practical measures that schools can take include:

  • Staggering the start and close of the school day
  • Staggering mealtimes
  • Moving classes to temporary spaces or outdoors
  • Holding school in shifts, to reduce class size

Administrators should look at opportunities to improve hygiene measures, including handwashing, respiratory etiquette (i.e. coughing and sneezing into the elbow), physical distancing measures, cleaning procedures for facilities and safe food preparation practices. Administrative staff and teachers should also be trained on physical distancing, school hygiene practices and recognition of flu-like symptoms.

In collaboration with the Bureau of Education Development, UNICEF is preparing training and support for Water Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) to school management, teachers and technical staff including cleaners as well as education departments in Municipalities. This will help schools get ready and maintain proper hygiene practices in schools.  


5.     Should a one size fit all approach to schools reopening be introduced?

Reopening schools will need to consider public health, the benefits and risks for education and other factors. The best interest of every child should be at the centre of these decisions, using the best available evidence, but exactly how this will look will vary from school to school. Community with no or low reported cases and where citizens are following the measures have no reason to keep schools closed. If children don’t have access to equipment and internet, then distance learning is not an option for them. The Governement needs to have a plan with different modalities that will allow local governments to ensure that all children are either in school learning or access a unified approach to distance learning, or a blended approach of distance and classroom-based learning, starting September 2020.


6.     What are the risks if children continue to distance learning? Why is it important for students to return to classroom-based learning?

When children cannot go to school, they often end up losing more than their education. For many students – for whom school offers a lifeline – when the classrooms close, they lose their routine, time with their friends, some their only meal of the day, their access to health and nutrition services and the safety that school provides for them.

In the past few months, call centres and shelters have reported an increase in domestic violence. Children and young people’s mental health suffers as they feel the weight of a stressful home life, poverty, isolation and how they are going to continue their studies at home, many sharing computers with siblings and struggling with unstable internet connectivity.

Prior to the pandemic, more than half of all fifteen-year-olds in this country were failing to meet basic proficiency levels in reading and maths. Teachers are reporting that an increased number of children have struggled with or fail to acquire what they were being taught online; and many reported that at one point during distance learning teachers could not contact some of their students. Prolonged school closures are likely to cause students to regress academically, especially as online learning has not been effective for all. Furthermore, some children are at risk of never returning to school.


7.     What if a teacher or student who attends classroom-based learning is tested positive with coronavirus?

Safety protocols alone - whether they are for schools, the workplace or protocols for visiting a shopping mall and restaurants – are only effective if everyone follows them. By respecting the protocols, we create the conditions to protect ourselves, our families and communities. In addition to the plans and protocols to protect students, staff, teachers and their families through preventing the spread of the virus, schools need to be prepared to take swift action if someone attending school has tested positive for coronavirus or shows symptoms of COVID-19. Each school should have a COVID-19 focal point trained to recognize symptoms and protocols to immediately notify parents or caregivers and provide them with instructions for testing and isolation. Schools also need to have direct links with testing facilities to receive prompt notifications if someone who has tested positive for coronavirus attended the school. Local health protection teams should immediately carry out a rapid risk assessment, to confirm who has been in close contact with the person during the period that they were infectious, and ensure they are asked to self-isolate. The health protection team should guide the schools through the actions they need to take. This could include sending home those who have been in close contact with the person tested positive and advising them to self-isolate for 14 days.


8.     It will be difficult for children, particularly for smaller children to follow physical distancing and other measures to prevent the spread of the virus, how should schools and teachers prepare to be able to help children follow the measures?

 Teachers and parents have an important role in making sure that children understand, learn and follow the new rules in schools. Teachers in preschools and early grades will have a to make a special effort through play-based learning to be able to help young children adapt to the new ways of learning in schools.  Schools will also have to clearly communicate these new rules with the parents so that they are aware, and they also support their children in practicing these new rules and developing habits that are important to protect their health. 

Parents have an important role and responsibility as well. They may be required to check their child’s temperature before school. If their child is showing signs of cold or flu, they should not go to school. If they are showing COVID-19 symptoms they need to follow the Government measures currently in place, contact their family doctor and follow the advice for testing and self-isolation. All adults have a role to play in modelling behaviour so that children can follow as well.


9.     What questions should I be asking my child’s teacher or school administrator?

During such a worrying and disruptive time, it’s natural to have a lot of questions. Some helpful ones you may want to ask include:

  • What steps has the school taken to help ensure the safety of students?
  • How will the school support the mental health of students and combat any stigma against people who have been sick?
  • How will the school refer children who may need referrals for specialized support?
  • Will any of the school’s safeguarding and bullying policies change once schools start to re-open?
  • How can I support school safety efforts, including through parent-teacher committees or other networks.


10. What should I do if my child has fallen behind?

Students around the world have shown just how much they want to keep learning. They have persisted with their lessons under difficult circumstances, with the support of their dedicated teachers and parents.

But many children will need extra support to catch up on their learning when schools reopen.

Schools should plan for catch-up lessons to help bring students back up to speed. This might include starting the year with refresher or remedial courses, after-school programmes or supplemental assignments to be done at home. Given the possibility that many schools may not open full time or for all grades, schools may implement ‘blended learning’ models, a mix of classroom instruction and remote education (self-study through take home exercises,  TV or online learning).

Give extra support to your child at home by creating a routine around school and schoolwork. This can help if they are feeling restless and having trouble focusing.

You may want to contact your child’s teacher or school to ask questions and stay informed. Be sure to let them know if your child is facing specific challenges, like grief over a family loss or heightened anxiety due to the pandemic.


11. What should I do if my child is struggling to get back into “school mode?”

Remember that your child will be dealing with the stress of the ongoing crisis differently from you. Create a supportive and nurturing environment and respond positively to questions and expressions of their feelings. Show support and let your child know that it’s not only okay, but normal, to feel frustrated or anxious at times like this.

Help your children to stick to their routines and make learning playful by incorporating it into everyday activities like cooking, family reading time or games. Another option could be joining a parent or community group to connect with other parents who are going through the same experience to share tips and get support.