• Kathleen Donohoe

Effective approaches to reopening schools – international examples and lessons

Worldwide, teachers, parents, students, and governments are grappling with how to provide ‘schooling’ to over one billion students.

There is great disparity between the measures put in place locally and internationally – from business as usual, to finishing school for the (northern hemisphere) academic year.


Locally, the concept of ‘rostered schooling’ or ‘part time learning plans’ is being implemented as a solution. At the heart of this is the requirement to teach face to face and virtually, concurrently.

Having worked across the K-12 and University sector, this is not impossible – at the heart of a teacher is the desire to ensure engaging learning experiences for and improve the wellbeing of each and every child, but additional infrastructure, time and skills is required. This approach needs to be supported by physical and virtual infrastructure, but more importantly through effective professional development programs for teachers, incorporating pedagogical as well as technological perspectives.


In recent weeks, we have asked teachers to reimagine the concept of learning, transforming it into an online experience. With little lead time or development to scaffold teaching in a virtual context, this has had mixed results, with some students engaged through invaluable learning experiences stretching beyond those of their previous classroom, but sadly, for others, this has not met potential.


The debate has incorporated many logistical and personal considerations other than the provision of learning. Schools are havens of socialisation, safety, and security for many students – amongst other things. Add to this the current context, where many of our parents are engaged in ‘essential services’, and the decision whether to send their child(ren) to school is not something they have the opportunity to decide on.


Are there alternatives to current and proposed approaches – that meet current requirements, whilst remaining dexterous, equitable, and sustainable as circumstances continually evolve and we look forward to the future?


Underlying all of the options detailed below is the need for:

  • Engaging learning experiences as a constant in continually changing circumstances for many students and their families

  • Consideration for parents working from home or those who are essential workers.

  • Time and access to professional development and resources to support all full time and casual teachers as they deliver online learning

  • Equity in access and experience for all students and teachers

  • Measures to foster the wellbeing of students, teachers, and parents from an educational, social and personal perspective

  • Sustainability considerations for the short and long term

  • Evaluation and review to ensure we come out of this with learnings, informing the way forward. 


Option 1

Learning hub provision

Jurisdictional bodies have valuable data collected on the demand for school attendance(1) (5). As required, we can put mechanisms in place to support parents who continually review their decision whether to send their children to school. In metropolitan areas (contextual in rural areas) we could establish ‘Learning hubs’ in schools or other facilities where learners can attend during school hours, whilst engaging in online learning experiences with their own teachers and consistently to their peers. These hubs would be agreed locations that can support the demand for student places, supported by qualified teachers and other service providers. Whilst some school facilities could be closed temporarily, reducing inefficiency, cleaning requirements, and inequitable access to PPE, soap, and sanitiser. The logistics of this (as previously noted by principals) would need to be addressed, but this would bring collaborative opportunities and a transparent, sustainable approach to provision in line with demand.

Learning hubs would ensure continuity in learning, equitable experiences and access, and support for the wellbeing of all students, particularly those students with additional support requirements. The location would be determined by demand – for example, the schools closest to a major hospital may be determined as the most efficient location.

Learning hub provision would be supported by:

  • Relief teachers (with required upskilling and support) at learning hubs to ensure their opportunity to access employment is retained. These teachers inspire the students who are learning online – supported by their own teachers and fellow students, assisting where required. They can also identify concerns for wellbeing or support through their face to face interactions.

  • Increased sanitary practices, balancing efficiency and hygiene, rather than unsustainable, inconsistent cleaning and hygiene practices across all schools. This could include temperature checks of students and teachers each day, as undertaken internationally, which could not be achieved on scale currently, but as a measure for those who need to attend school.

  • Provision of PPE and sterile work environments for students and teachers who are attending the learning hubs, in line with those being provided to other essential workers.

  • Provision of support services so students can access those services physically or virtually as required.

  • Distancing of learners and teachers to meet social distancing requirements, whilst ensuring the safety and support for students who need to attend schools – whatever their reasons.

  • Equitable access to devices, networks, and support resources to support learning activities.

  • Additional social opportunities for students, whilst considering safety.

  • A week of preparation at the beginning of term 2 to ensure cleanliness and sanitisation and for logistics to be addressed.

The number of these hubs and the staffing requirements would need to be flexible and proactive as patterns are identified and intentions for attendance are advised. A proportion of students would require consistent attendance through the support for essential workers, and the introduction of a tool where parents could notify their intention for students to attend and which hub would inform staffing requirements, supported by a pool of willing relief (or other) teachers, who in turn are supported through exemplar hygiene, cleaning and distancing practices. This would ensure teachers are not expected to teach online and face to face concurrently and would allow for additional circumstances and time to support teachers to gain further skills, collaborate, focus on effective online learning and reflect on learning to date to improve the online learning experience for students.

Option 2


A complete shift to online learning

A complete move to online learning for all students for at least a term, with reconsideration at the end of term 2, 2020. There are numerous examples of where this has been or is currently being implemented. Looking at and investigating the examples below would inform our starting position and provide benchmarks from which we can make informed decisions aligned to our context:

  • ACT, Australia

  • Estonia, seen as an exemplar

  • South Korea

  • Queensland and Victoria, although there have been some glitches, are reporting absentee rates at 4.8%, less than half the national average absenteeism rate of 10%(1)

  • Turkey has moved to complete distance learning

  • China

An international overview of countries approaches to shifting to online or television-based learning is available at:


Option 3


A gap term

Accepting that there will be a gap in students learning in the traditional mode. This could be an opportunity for families to spend time together and embrace the value of ‘informal’ learning

  • New Zealand: After the Christchurch earthquakes, Schools were closed for weeks – but results did not suffer, and high school students did not drop out. “The students’ performance actually went up in the final exams” Professor Hattie (3)

  • In the United States, many districts and states have closed their schools for the remainder of the academic year. An overview of the American states is available here.

  • In Japan, schools have been closed since February


Option 4

Outsourcing learning

There are countless providers of educational apps and tools. Could we evaluate these providers and build an exemplar pool for people to select from and provide feedback, similar to the list from UNESCO (available here). Local and international providers such as national television corporations are also creating resources and shows to support student learning:

This could be supported by strategic initiatives, collating resources from approved providers to cover as much of the curriculum as possible, ensuring equity, quality, currency, and alignment to context.


Option 5

Reduced school days supporting preparation time for teachers

A reduction in core hours would supplement learning through:

  • Allowing time for teachers to create learning resources and undertake required professional learning

  • Creating time for learning opportunities outside of ‘school’, such as opportunities from external providers, e.g. museums) or where possible, baking, DIY etc.

  • Allowing time for (virtual) social interaction between students

  • Allow time for students to self-identify informal learning opportunities and reflect on them as a formal learning task.

Option 6

Carry on as normal, with stringent health and safety considerations

Taiwan provided us with a benchmark for what this could look like, with students isolated, not only in class but at lunchtimes.

For this to be considered, stringent processes would be required for cleaning schools, provision of masks and hand sanitisers, arrival and departure from school, additional staffing for additional class groups, staggered lunch breaks and activities, and most importantly to ensure students align with social distancing, supported by valuable resources to keep students and teachers informed about these measures and the benefits of them.

A major consideration would be the infrastructure requirements to meet social distancing obligations. This might be met through digital capabilities, but space (and supervision) would still need to be available for students and teachers to attend.


Option 7

Staggered stages, with stringent health and safety considerations

As suggested and implemented recently, staggered return to school beginning with year 12 and other agreed stages, returning only as the effects of students and teachers travelling and congregating are determined. As additional students and staff return, this may require staggered start times or breaks, but additional students will not return until the effect of increasing numbers is clear from the previous stage. As above there would be numerous logistical considerations and preparation (infrastructure, staffing, health, and safety), but this could also be substantiated by effective evaluation to ensure risk and benefits are realised.


More than 1.5 billion students and youth across the planet are affected by school and university closures due to the COVID-19 outbreak.


UNESCO (4)


Any of these options (or a mix) is not ideal, but in current circumstances, is anything ideal? Rather, teachers, leaders, and parents are doing their best to ensure that when we get to the other side of this, the development of our students, and the provision of valuable, safe learning experiences for them, and our teachers, has been a priority.


For more information on how other countries are dealing with schools during Covid-19, see the World Bank overview, available here. ​


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