The pandemic has affected every nation but it has not affected them all equally.
Some locked down hard and then emerged slowly, others have attempted to maintain normality throughout, with mixed success. But none has been able to ignore its impact.
Here, we take a look at five nations broadly comparable to the UK in terms of either education systems, population size, landmass or cultural views of education, to understand how they tackled issues such as school reopenings and rotas, and how successful (or not) they have been.
Some data is not directly comparable either because it is not publicly available or because the circumstances of a nation’s response have been so different.
The United States is the nation hit hardest by the pandemic so far. More than 440,000 people have died and millions are suffering economically.
From an education perspective, the nation has adopted a very mixed approach. In Florida, schools are open; in Los Angeles, children are being taught remotely; in New York, it is a hybrid blend.
The map below, produced by MCH Strategic Data, shows just how patchwork the response has been, with blue representing hybrid teaching, red for full in-school teaching and orange online only.
Because of this mixed approach, it is hard to say the school system was ever “closed” and, instead, on the school closure tracker tool produced by Insights for Education, it states that schools in the US have been “partially closed” for 278 days as of 3 February.
A teacher in the US, who is living through this mixed approach, sums it up as: “It’s a mess over here.”
They explain that because the federal government can't force schools to stay open or to shut, each state has set its own rules, which have – unsurprisingly – formed around political lines, with democratic-leaning states engaging in more remote and hybrid teaching and Republican states staying more open: “Go to Texas or Florida and it looks like life is operating as it was pre-pandemic. Florida doesn't even have a mask requirement in the state, whereas here in New Jersey, you must wear a mask to enter any building,” the teacher says.
One notable difference is that, where teaching unions are especially strong, they have been able to bring their pressure to bear to keep schools closed.
“My husband teaches in a school which has a very strong teachers’ union,” says the teacher. “They banded together and said they are not going back into the building until certain health and safety protocols are met (which the schools still have not done).
“Therefore, he has been teaching remotely since September. The problem is that school buildings here are so incredibly run down that the ventilation systems are often inadequate in normal times, let alone during an airborne pandemic.”
At present, there is no official data on how many teachers have died of Covid-19 in the US but the American Federation of Teachers estimates at least 530 K-12 employed educators (teachers and support staff) died of Covid last year – although it believes this is a “significant undercount”.
The World Food Programme (WFP) estimates that around 300,000 children in the US usually receive some form of subsidised or free school meal.
The current system to cover this loss for these children has been delegated to the state level, with states able to request assistance from the Department for Agriculture to provide food stamps to help families whose children would be missing out on free or subsidised meals owing to school closures.
The Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) lists those working in education as essential workers and they are therefore in the second round of vaccinations planned – Phase 1b – after healthcare workers and long-term care facility workers.
This differs notably from the UK, where teachers are not listed as being a distinct group but instead will simply fall into the various age brackets that the UK government has outlined – with no clear timeline for when any teacher under 50 years old, or indeed any other worker, will be vaccinated.
Italy was the first European nation to be fully impacted by the pandemic – with schools closing from 5 March 2020 (two weeks before the UK) – and not reopening again until 14 September. A second partial closure occurred again from 2 November.
As such, it has a very high rate of closures, according to data from Insights for Education, of 93 days closed and 95 days partially closed. Or, according to data from the Centre for Global Development (CGDev), 26 weeks.
Dr Randa Grob-Zakhary, the CEO of Insights for Education, says that, as Italy was the first to really experience the pandemic in Europe, it did not have any clear path to follow, which is why it used a lot of localised lockdowns at first while still keeping travel routes open – something that did not do enough to halt the spread of transmission.
“Because there was not as much national action to begin with, it took them far longer to get the outbreak down and this is one possible reason why schools were closed for so much longer,” she adds.
Currently, schools are partially open but with detailed restrictions on measures to be followed, such as infant classes being kept in a bubble and only specific infant staff being allowed on site.
In primary settings, pupils are socially distanced and need to wear masks and, if cases are found in a class, the whole class stays home until students can come back with a negative test result.
If an individual child is off, schools offer hybrid learning to those students and, if a whole group is off, remote teaching is offered instead.
Most schools are offering some sort of hybrid learning for students who can’t attend owing to quarantining, illness or vulnerable status (an immunosuppressed member of the family, for example), even if it is just recording lessons and putting materials on Google Classroom.
The first year of middle school – effectively Year 7 – has been back the whole time, while Years 8 and 9 have either been in school or taught remotely depending on a state’s lockdown levels.
Jennie Devine, a teacher in the country, explains that, overall, the public has supported the plans.
“This is seen as a very positive move and the public is generally very supportive of this as the measures do seem to be keeping students safe and transmission of Covid between students low.”
However, with high school, the situations has been tougher, with pupils only just returning to classrooms in the past few weeks – in part owing to pressure from students to be allowed back.
“High schools have been allowed back in person for the first time in almost a year. This follows general dissatisfaction with the policy of keeping students away from school for so long, and there were even protests from students – in Bergamo, for example,” says Ms Devine.
School that have opened can have only 50 per cent attendance, though, and so are using rotas, such as between years groups.
“Some schools are allowing full classes but only allowing alternate Year groups to attend – Years 9 and 11 one week and then years 10 and 12 the next, for example,” notes Ms Devine.
“It has only just been implemented but there seems to be real excitement from the student point of view, relief from parents and positive reactions from teachers.”
We were unable to find any data on teacher deaths in Italy. We asked the teaching union, the Federation of Knowledge Workers (Federazione Lavoratori Della Conoscenza) – for information but had received no reply at the time of publication.
WFP data says that almost 2.5 million children usually benefit from school meals in Italy but it does not have information on new systems being used to make up for this shortfall.
The Local reports that teachers in Italy will start to receive a vaccine this month, alongside police officers and prison staff, as part of a plan to drastically speed up the rollout of the vaccine.
France has one of the lowest closed school rates of any advanced nation, with Insights for Education’s data listing it as having just 41 days of closure and 27 partial closed days.
Susannah Hares, Co-Director of Education Policy and Senior Policy Fellow at CGDev – whose data lists French schools as being closed in total for 10 weeks (which includes any partially closed weeks) – says this has been touted by president Emmanuel Macron’s as a government success during the pandemic.
“This has translated to public support for keeping schools open, too,” she adds, noting that public opinion has shown most people in favour of another lockdown but against closing schools.
One possible reason the government has been able to achieve long opening is, like Germany, that there was a clear communication that schools’ reopening would be given a clear priority over the wider society.
Ms Hares adds, too, that – perhaps surprisingly – one notable difference between there and the UK is that teaching unions in France have been more open to going back to school than their counterparts here.
Nicholas Hammond, headteacher of the British School in Paris, says that this is, in part, because the government has worked closely with unions around how schools would reopen.
“I think that the government has included unions in decision making about schools, has briefed them about what the school’s role is and isn’t, and has not loaded additional burdens on to the schools – eg, testing, contact etc – as seems to be the case in the UK.”
However, he said this goodwill may not last if vaccines continue to be delayed.
Dr Grob-Zakhary, from Insights for Education, adds that, as in Germany, the French government has given more autonomy to school leaders and authorities at a local level about whether or not they wanted to switch to remote teaching if infections increased.
“Schools had the authority to decide whether or not to close and there was also rapid testing available in schools that could enable them to stay open,” she adds.
Even now, the French government continues to focus on schools, with a new law this week stating that all pupils over the age of six and teachers should wear surgical-grade face coverings – with no fabric or homemade masks allowed – and a single infection case will result in everyone in that school being sent home for seven days.
That said, there are rumours that schools may close again in France as part of a “circuit breaker”, using the two weeks of half-term (which is staggered across three regional phases) and then adding two weeks to this for a full-four week gap.
“There will come a point where the patience is exhausted and there have been a few demos. If the lockdown comes over half-term, I would be surprised if there wasn't a move to suspend teaching for all four weeks,” adds Mr Hammond.
Currently, teachers are included in phase 3 of France’s vaccine rollout, which would mean a planned rollout from late spring – although owing to well-publicised vaccine delays in Europe, this my well slip into summer.
We were unable to find any data on teacher deaths in Italy. We asked the French teaching union, Fédération Syndicale Unitaire, for information but had received no reply at the time of publication.
At a national level, the WFP notes that, on 15 April 2020, the government provided a payment of €100 (£88) per child for vulnerable families to mitigate the extra costs of providing lunches.
And because, in France, school meal provision is administrated at a local level, there have been moves since then, by different regions, to either provide vouchers or food stamps to vulnerable families or even provide meals directly to the home for those that require them.
Germany shut down swiftly – including schools – with CGDev data showing that it closed schools from March 11 – a week after Italy and a week before the UK – and subsequently reopened partially on 4 May.
It has remained partially open ever since, until 1 February when, owing to concerns about the new variants in circulation, it instigated a full school lockdown again.
This means that, according to data from Insights for Education, it is listed as having shut schools for only 36 days while having 112 partial school closure days.
Dr Grob-Zakhary says the German government was very clear in its communications about its intent to prioritise keeping schools open – as a separate area to wider society – when it first came out of lockdown, helping it maintain such a long period of open, or partially open, schooling.
“They made it clear that schools would open at all costs and this would mean not everything else would reopen. This was a clear strategy driven by its desire not just to reopen schools but keep them open,” she said.
“They planned reopening carefully so it was not just about opening again but about how to stay open, with concise reopening policies and very clear directions.”
Another potential benefit to the country’s strategy outlined by Dr Grob-Zakhary is that – because of the decentralised political model in Germany – regions had more control over how they responded to the situation in terms of transmission and density of location.
This helps to explain why the number of partially open days is so high and contrasts very differently with the UK, where the government was threatening legal action against councils that were seeking to close schools in December, even as infection rates rose massively.
Free school meals
There is no data available from the WFP on Germany’s school meals or provision to replace lost meals.
A report on DW.com notes that, in Germany, vaccinations are being run on a three-tiered approach, with teachers in the third group listed as high priority (after highest and higher priority in groups 1 and 2).
According to the latest data from the Robert Koch Institute (RKI), more than 27,000 teachers, teaching assistants and childcare workers have been infected so far but just 21 teachers and care workers have died from Covid-19.
Data from Insights for Education shows that schools in Japan closed for 24 days and partially closed for 56 days – exactly the same as France.
One reason cited for this is that, again, schools were given more autonomy over what they could do and were given clear guidance on what do to with this control by the national government, says Dr Grob-Zakhary.
“They didn’t just say ‘do what you want’ but also provided advice on what to do.”
For example, in Japan there are many multi-generational households, posing a significant risk of cross-family transmission.
As such, school leaders could ask students who lived with elderly relatives to stay at home and work remotely to avoid the risk of transmission, and therefore keep cases and mortality rates down.
“This nuanced and flexible response had very positive outcomes for school openings,” she adds.
Other measures will have undoubtedly helped, too – such as the fact that wearing masks was common in Japanese culture long before the pandemic, so there was little to no social resistance to this as a societal response to the pandemic.
Furthermore, as noted by Bob Squires, assistant professor of education at the University of Richmond, classes in Japan were often split, so students attended on alternate days, and daily temperature checks helped the early identification of infections. Such preventative measures were used from the moment schools opened.
As an indication of how successful this has been, a study of the transmission of Covid-19 among students and teachers in Japanese elementary and junior high schools from 1 June to 31 July 2020 found just 207 cases among students.
Household transmission was identified as the dominant transmission route, confirmed in 71.4 per cent of elementary school cases and 60.3 per cent of junior high school cases.
There was one case of school transmission in elementary schools and six cases in junior high schools. A total of 39 positive cases were reported among teachers, of which the transmission route was unknown in 72.4 per cent of elementary school cases and 90 per cent of junior high school cases.
There were no reported cases of deaths among students and teachers.
Despite this sort of success – which, it should be noted, only covers two months in the summer, when it was clearly easier to suppress transmission, as witnessed in the UK – it does not mean the measures are universally popular.
One teacher in Japan told Tes that there are discrepancies in how measures are applied and that a sense of fatigue has crept in.
“My school, for instance, doesn't want students doing group work or cooperative learning but, at the same time, there are factors that make it difficult for students to stay socially distanced (PE for example is done without masks on, so students are playing basketball without masks),” the teacher said.
“During lunch, students eat in the classrooms and they are supposed to sit in rows, facing away from each other, and eat their bentos silently. I bet you can guess how much compliance we have with that.”
Professor Koji Wada, from the Department of Public Health, Faculty of Medicine, International University of Health and Welfare in Tokyo, who led the study mentioned above, told Tes there are currently no reported teacher deaths in Japan, based on data he has access to from the Ministry of Education in the country.
Japan’s vaccine rollout has been slow, as the nation has a complicated relationship with vaccines, with many saying they would refuse any Covid-19 vaccine.
“The government here has slowed down the process of rolling out vaccines and we haven’t even started yet. They have done this to make a ‘show’ of how safe and deliberate they are being this time,” adds a teacher in the country.
To date, according to the Japan Times, the plan is for vaccines to roll out to older people from 1 April and then move on from there.
The WFP notes that, in Japan, the government announced, since April 2020, that it would be providing free lunches to all public pupils to lessen the economic impact of Covid-19.
As reported by the Japan Times, the government in Japan announced in early 2020, as the pandemic took hold, that it would provide free lunches to all public pupils to lessen the economic impact of Covid-19.
Dan Worth is senior editor at Tes