[ANALYSIS] School reopening: Lessons from ASEAN neighbors

The Philippines is the last of the ASEAN countries to reopen its basic education schools. This reflects both extraordinary caution on the part of the national leadership but also indecision on their part.  

Being slow to move, however, does have its positive points. It allows the Department of Education to study how other ministries of education have acted and pick up key learnings from their experiences.

How have our ASEAN neighbors reopened their schools? For the most part, not in all grade levels at once but in phases. This prevents a surge when schools open that may be difficult to control. It also allows schools to adjust to the health protocols and get students attuned to new behaviors expected of them.  

One major learning: Have a plan for what to do with schools and areas when there is a resurgence of cases.  A more local lockdown appears to be the answer.  This requires foresight and planning, not “seat of the pants” midnight speculation.   

The number of cases per million population is from late June 2020. They will have changed slightly but are included here to provide a comparison with the Philippines where the number of cases just a little more than a month earlier was 212 cases per million population.

Vietnam (3 cases per million)

Vietnam has been the most successful country in terms of managing COVID-19 cases though at the end of July 2020, an outbreak in Danang City in central Vietnam forced the government to lockdown the city and close the schools.  Over 100 positive cases were detected there with 5 deaths.  More than 10,000 have been identified as having had contact with these positive cases, most having had contact in and around the main hospital in the city.  Testing of the entire city population has started to get an idea of how widespread the spread of the coronavirus is. 

Earlier, all schools opened nationwide on May 4.  The closure of schools at the end of July because of the new outbreak is limited to Danang City and is indefinite or until the Prime Minister’s office lifts the closure.  In the meantime, the national exams for high school seniors in Danang is on hold.

Elsewhere in the country, schools are meeting full face-to-face.  This started in grade-by-grade shifts with students returning over a one-month period, transitioning from hybrid to full-face-to face schooling starting with 9th and 12th grade students being first to return to class.  This was followed by older to younger grades in sequence.  Pre-schools and nurseries were last to re-open.  

Shorter school days were arranged with two shifts (morning and evening).  Classes were divided so that the maximum class size would be between 20 to 25 students.  Scheduling strategies include staggering school days and weeks, and school using a blended learning approach.

A prioritized curriculum with limited subjects is being followed.  Different forms of distance learning are being pursued depending on teachers’ preparedness and regulations around distance teaching and the safe return to schools.

A survey of water and sanitation infrastructure in schools led to the prioritization of water points in schools with the highest needs.

Thailand (44 cases per million)

Classes opened between June 18 and July 1 using blended learning. Classes can meet Face-to-Face but with limited number of students per class (20 to 25 students per class).

Students and their desks will be from 1 to 2 meters apart and they will not be allowed to eat lunch or meals together.

In blended learning, students will spend part of the week doing remote learning at home to decongest the schools.  For this, the government is providing free online learning via 17 free DL TV channels.

Singapore (6,315 cases per million)

The city-state’s large number of cases come from the migrant worker sector working on infrastructure and who live in worker dormitories where the infection has spread.

Classes opened on June 2 using blended learning at first. The phased opening was approved after community transmission was in single digits.  This then ramped up to full Face-to-Face learning in small class sizes of 10 students per class. 

Graduating cohorts (Grades 6, 9, 10, and 12) were the first to return. Every week thereafter, other grades returned in alternate weeks in a phased approach for students in schools.  

Teachers were in quarantine for 14 days before returning to school to ensure they were asymptomatic.

Safe distancing, temperature declaration, and contact tracing continue to be rigorously implemented.

Brunei Darussalam (no information on cases)

In preparing for school opening, all students have to use face masks and hand gloves.  Schools will be stocked with cleaning detergents.

Temperature checks and the use of hand sanitizers are required upon arrival in school.

To manage and limit crowding in schools, schools will have staggered arrival and dismissal times.  School entrance and exit points will be monitored and limited in terms of traffic.  

Schools have prepared a modified school timetable so that students can attend classes in shifts.

There are rules on social distancing among students and staff with distancing markers all over the school compound, in classrooms and laboratories.

Class sizes are limited to 15 to 18 students.  

Indonesia (128 cases per million)

The school year opened in July but face-to-face classes were only allowed in identified green zones covering only 6% of total enrollment.  The rest of all schools are using blended and distance learning.  

Malaysia (255 cases per million)

Schools opened June 24 using blended learning. Face-to-Face will only be allowed initially for school examinations.  

Main consideration for reopening schools

In considering reopening of schools, there are 4 factors to take into consideration:

  1. The mode of learning (choice of options between face-to-face, blended or fully remote learning);
  2. Operational concerns (which students to prioritize to return to face-to-face; changes in school schedules, ways of teaching);
  3. Health and safety (Implementation of safety protocols, social distancing plans); and,
  4. Resurgence planning (flexibility in moving between modes of operation along with developing post-Covid-19 education strategies.  What should schools do if new cases of Covid-19 surge?)

In helping school systems worldwide plan their return-to-school strategies, UNICEF surveyed 84 school systems worldwide to see what type and level of preparedness there was in school opening.  

The responses from different countries reflect what countries felt was important to utilize or practice to re-open their schools.  This is useful information for Philippine schools, both public and private.  Schools can use this information as a checklist for preparedness. (Source:  UNICEF, Reopening Schools – Case studies from across the world, July 2020)

Safe school operations (percentage of school systems that have done the following health and sanitation protocols)

  • Monitoring students and staff health  -  57%
  • Clear procedures in case students or staff become unwell  -  49%
  • Decision model for re-closing and re-opening schools as needed  -  18%
  • Protocols on health and hygiene  -  73%
  • Arrange or improve water supply at schools  -  57%
  • Construct or strengthen sanitation facilities in schools  -  43%
  • Protocols for cleaning and disinfecting schools  -  62%
  • Provision for cleaning and disinfecting schools  -  63%

Focus on learning (percentage of schools systems that have included measures to mitigate learning loss in school re-opening plans)

  • Revise or develop alternative academic calendars  -  46%
  • Assess learning levels when schools reopen  -  42%
  • Remedial learning programs  -  52%
  • Accelerated learning programs to integrate previously out-of-school children  -  20%
  • Increase class time  -  7%
  • Revise policies on grade promotion or entry may include waiving entrance  -  21%
  • Continued use of blended learning  -  4%

Reaching the most marginalized students and addressing gender inequality. Percentage of school systems that have done the following:

  • Public campaigns and community engagement to encourage vulnerable groups to return to school  -  45%
  • Phased re-openings or opening sooner in areas with more vulnerable groups  -  15%
  • Ensure public health information is in relevant languages and in accessible formats  -  42%
  • Financial incentives to cover education costs (tuition fees, uniforms, meals, transport)  -  30%
  • Ensure learning materials and services are accessible to people (children) with disabilities  -  48%
  • Make modifications to ensure water, hygiene and sanitation services are accessible  -  27%
3 possible scenarios

There will be at least 3 possible scenarios for Philippine schools when they re-open based on the Covid-19 situation in their area.

Situation 1:  Areas with large numbers of cases (areas under Enhanced Community Quarantine or Modified ECQ) – Return to face-to-face classes will take some time.  Distance learning will be the norm in the immediate term.  DepED should learn from our ASEAN neighbors how to phase the return of students to face-to-face learning.  

Situation 2:  Areas with single digit cases (under GCQ) – Face-to-face classes should be able to meet but in less number per class and with proper social distancing and health protocols.  The return to class should be in shifts (grade by grade) to manage traffic, prevent surges, and allow for students, teachers and parents to learn new behaviors in school to prevent the spread of the virus.

Situation 3:  Areas with no cases – Face-to-face classes should be allowed but class sizes limited to 25 students for proper social distancing.  Class scheduling (in shifts) to manage school sizes should be done before the school year starts.

The Philippine basic education sector is the last to re-open in the ASEAN region.  Let’s look at the experience of our neighbors (Vietnam, Thailand and Singapore in particular) to see what they have done and learn from it.  

In a situation as fluid and unpredictable as this Covid-19 is, Philippine schools should have very clear resurgence planning:  What to do if, and when, Covid-19 cases spike or surge again in an area?  

Vietnam’s immediate response in Danang is instructive.  Schools in that city were shut down immediately, community quarantine implemented, and testing of the city population undertaken.  But schools in the rest of the country were allowed to continue but with an eye on local cases possibly emerging.

The Philippine basic education sector still has time to prepare for school opening.  Being last to move has its advantages but time is running out.  We are now just weeks away from school opening and this will be a difficult one given the new health protocols required to keep our schoolchildren safe. – Rappler.com

Juan Miguel Luz is an adjunct professor and former head of the Zuelling School of Development Management at the Asian Institute of Management. He is also former education undersecretary