Germany, Vietnam, and New Zealand have reopened schools. Here’s what the US can learn.

After the coronavirus interrupted schooling for more than 1.5 billion children worldwide, some of them are heading back to the classroom — and offering lessons for American students and educators.

In Germany, students administer coronavirus tests on themselves to track if they have the disease or not. In Vietnam, children and adults get their temperatures checked before entering the school building and wear masks once inside. And in New Zealand, parents or students worried about returning too soon can delay returning until they feel comfortable.

These and other policies aim to help resume schooling safely and end the months of disruptions that experts say hurt students and caused excess stress for teachers worldwide. Some experts consider school restarts worth the risk, since young people aren’t as vulnerable to the disease as older people, though the data on whether or not kids can spread the virus much remains inconclusive.

There’s no one-size-fits-all solution, and not every idea has worked perfectly. But if there’s one silver lining from the United States reopening schools later than other countries due to its large coronavirus outbreak, it’s that it now has time to learn from their attempts.

“It’s a huge opportunity to rethink how we deliver these services,” said Robert Schwartz of the Harvard Graduate School of Education. “The old American exceptionalism in education is breaking down a bit, so maybe leaders will look abroad at how others are bringing kids back to school.”

Here are three countries’ methods that should have American educational leaders taking notes.

Germany has coronavirus testing in schools

In mid-May, the New York Times told the story of Lea Hammermeister, a 17-year-old high school junior in the small northern German town of Neustrelitz. Before going to class, she grabbed a coronavirus test kit, swabbed her throat, and then properly prepared the device for evaluation. Later that night, she received the result in her email: negative. That allowed her to wear a green sticker, which means she can walk freely about the school without a mask.

It’s a procedure Hammermeister and her classmates follow every four days to keep tabs on Covid-19’s spread within her school. She and others told the Times that they appreciate the program, as it helps students feel safe in the classroom and allows parents and other caregivers to work without having to also care for their children during the workday.

“Schools are the spine of our societies and economies,” Henry Tesch, the school’s headmaster, told the New York Times. “Without schools, parents can’t work and children are being robbed of precious learning time and, ultimately, a piece of their future.”

Such a testing program isn’t in every German school, but it’s one that many others might adopt in the near future.

In the meantime, schools in Germany continue to follow new directives for reopening schools: Hallways are now one-way avenues, masks must be worn in classrooms, seats are assigned and spaced far apart, and everyone is encouraged to wear heavier clothing as windows must be kept open to improve air circulation. All of that is in addition to already common practices such as keeping a 6-foot distance between students when standing in line.

[embedded content]

But implementing these measures has come with challenges. For example, some schools simply can’t fit every student inside the building if they are to maintain social distancing. In the Neustrelitz high school, only about a third of the student body can be in class at a time — and even then, a teacher might have to teach two groups in two classrooms at once.

Still, keeping tabs on the disease through testing and minimizing exposure is one of the better ways to keep the lessons going.

Vietnam requires mandatory masks and temperature checks

Vietnam, which used testing and contact tracing early and aggressively to get a handle on its outbreak, continues to use similar methods to reopen schools.

After a three-month hiatus, Vietnam’s 22 million school-age students were allowed to return to their classrooms this month after first passing a mandatory temperature check at their school’s entrance. If a child doesn’t have a fever, they’re allowed to attend classes, but they must wear a mask throughout the entire school day. One school in Hanoi, the capital, bought 10,000 masks to ensure it had enough for students to use.

Some may find wearing a mask for hours cumbersome, but 11-year-old Pham Anh Kiet, who attends a western Hanoi school, doesn’t mind. “I feel safe when I wear a mask and have my temperature checked, I am not afraid of being infected with the virus,” he told Agence France-Presse (AFP) on May 4.

[embedded content]

As in Germany, Vietnam’s schools are also enforcing social distancing measures. However, Nguyen Xuan Khang, a head teacher in Hanoi, told AFP that maintaining separation could pose a challenge for younger students. “They are very active,” he said.

Another challenge will be sanitation: About 30 percent of Vietnamese schools don’t have access to running water or soap, according to the government’s own data. That means hand-washing for 20 seconds won’t be a ubiquitous practice among students, increasing the chances of a possible outbreak.

Still, the widespread use of masks in Vietnamese schools may minimize that risk.

New Zealand has a “transition arrangement” option

Not everyone, though, is ready to return to school. New Zealand’s government recognizes that and has offered a pathway to allow parents to send their kids to school only when they feel comfortable doing so.

New Zealand’s schools resumed classes on May 14, but students and parents who thought that date was too soon were allowed to opt for a “transition arrangement” with their school.

“We also know that children and young people’s wellbeing is important and there may be students whose parents are anxious about their return to school, as indeed the students themselves may be. In these instances, we can help you work through a transition arrangement that will take longer than the period of time talked about here,” New Zealand’s Ministry of Education stated this month.

However, the government provided no real clarity on what such an arrangement would look like or for how long it should last. Those details were left up to the schools, all but assuring a lack of uniformity in the kind of “arrangements” agreed to throughout the country.

Yet experts say the government’s decision to allow for some flexibility and individual decision-making by families will help with promoting mental health in the pandemic, not just physical well-being.

Schwartz, the Harvard education expert, doesn’t believe all these ideas are foolproof but offered some of his own, mainly having schools invest lots of money in developing teachers into better online educators. He thinks having US officials learn from other countries’ experiences with reopening schools is a worthwhile endeavor.

“The US is notorious for not thinking it can learn from the world, but it should be in this case,” he told me.


Support Vox’s explanatory journalism

Every day at Vox, we aim to answer your most important questions and provide you, and our audience around the world, with information that has the power to save lives. Our mission has never been more vital than it is in this moment: to empower you through understanding. Vox’s work is reaching more people than ever, but our distinctive brand of explanatory journalism takes resources — particularly during a pandemic and an economic downturn. Your financial contribution will not constitute a donation, but it will enable our staff to continue to offer free articles, videos, and podcasts at the quality and volume that this moment requires. Please consider making a contribution to Vox today.