Schools can be safely reopened, especially for younger children, with standard precautions such as physical distancing, mask wearing, sanitization, and health screenings–so long as infection rates in the general community are low.
Amid the pandemic, schools around the world have adopted various strategies to safely reopen. Younger children are more likely to be asymptomatic and some argue that they are less likely to spread the infection. Researchers at the University of Washington published this comprehensive report summarizing safe schools reopening models and implementation approaches in 15 countries. The most common measures include (1) strengthening sanitization procedures; (2) reducing class sizes; (3) grouping students into “pods” or cohorts, to minimize interactions while still allowing for limited socialization; (4) staggering schedules; and (5) using hybrid models that combine in-person and virtual learning.
Transmission control efforts in schools have focused on physical distancing and health screenings. In countries such as South Korea and Taiwan, masks are required for all students and teachers; during lunchtime, some school policies require students to eat at their individual desks separated by plastic dividers. In China, one school encouraged students to design and wear meter-long hats as a creative way to teach physical distancing. Many schools have implemented temperature checks at entry and instruct students to monitor their own temperatures. Advanced technologies such as AI-based thermal scanners and surveillance robots have already been employed in schools in China and are gaining traction elsewhere, including the United States.
One notable example of successful safe school measures came from Taiwan, where schools never officially closed. Classes were instead postponed by only two weeks; the extra time was used to prepare schools by improving ventilation, spacing out desks, and adding sanitation protocols. Families were required to complete travel surveys before returning. The government also helped to supply schools with masks, thermometers, and sanitizers.
Guidelines and recommendations for school reopening have been published by various sources throughout the pandemic. A report by UNESCO, UNICEF, World Food Programme, and World Bank detailed a framework for reopening schools. The WHO has also released guidance for school public health measures. In the United States, the CDC provides detailed information and guidance regarding schools on its website.
The response to a school infection outbreak can range from quarantining just the affected students and teachers, to shutting down the whole system. Most countries that have reopened schools have not reported school-associated outbreaks. However, there have been a few exceptions in places like Israel, where social distancing recommendations were not strictly enforced. Public health experts have cautioned that schools should reopen only after the virus has been locally contained–a central issue in the school debate in the U.S. Importantly, countries that have successfully reopened schools had low rates of community transmission, with high testing and contact tracing capacity.
Policy Brief: Education During COVID-19 and Beyond, United Nations, August 2020
How to Reopen Schools: What Science and Other Countries Teach Us, The New York Times, July 11, 2020
What Do We Know About Children and Coronavirus Transmission?, Kaiser Family Foundation, July 29, 2020
Summary of School Re-Opening Models and Implementation Approaches During the COVID-19 Pandemic, University of Washington, July 6, 2020
School Openings Across Globe Suggest Ways to Keep Coronavirus at Bay, Despite Outbreaks, Science, July 7, 2020
The Pictures Say It All: How South Korean Schools Are Reopening, The Washington Post, May 26, 2020
Taiwan School Uses Dividers During Lunch to Counter COVID-19, Reuters, March 13, 2020
Chinese Pupils Wear One-Metre Hats to Practice Social Distancing From Others, South China Morning Post, April 28, 2020 [Video]
The AI Temperature Scanner Firetines Helps 31 Chinese Schools Reopen After COVID-19, Business Wire, April 15, 2020
Chinese Schools Use Robots, Thermal Imaging Tech in COVID-19 Control, Global Times, May 11, 2020
The Dystopian Tech That Companies Are Selling to Help Schools Reopen Sooner, Vox, August 14, 2020
How Taiwan Keeps Kids Safe at School Amid COVID-19, CBC News, March 27, 2020 [Video]
Taiwan Schools Reopen Amid COVID-19 Epidemic While Schools in Hong Kong Remain Closed, South China Morning Post, February 26, 2020 [Video]
How Schools in Other Countries Have Opened, Education Week, June 10, 2020
Government Supplying 6.45 Million Masks to Schools For New Semester, Focus Taiwan, February 23, 2020
Framework for Reopening Schools, UNICEF, June 2020
Considerations for School-Related Public Health Measures in the Context of COVID-19, World Health Organization, May 10, 2020
Schools and Childcare Programs, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Updated August 21, 2020
When COVID Subsided, Israel Opened Its Schools. It Didn’t Go Well, The New York Times, August 4, 2020
The Key Lesson From School Opening Abroad: Contain the Virus, Vox, July 15, 2020
Is It Safe To Reopen Schools? These Countries Say Yes, The Wall Street Journal, May 31, 2020
Some Countries Reopened Schools. What Did They Learn About Kids and COVID?, Wired, July 27, 2020
Can Schools Open Safely During a Pandemic? Looking Abroad For Answers, National Public Radio, July 22, 2020 [50 min podcast]
Lessons From Around the World: How Schools Are Opening Up After COVID-19 Lockdowns, Reuters, May 13, 2020
How Schools Around the World Are Reopening During the Coronavirus Pandemic, ABC News, May 17, 2020
How Countries Are Reopening Schools During the Pandemic, Council on Foreign Relations, July 27, 2020
Reopening Schools in the Context of COVID-19: Health and Safety Guidelines From Other Countries, Learning Policy Institute, May 15, 2020
Environmental Scan of School Reopenings During COVID-19, Public Health Ontario, July 2020
Volunteer community workers can distribute information, help enforce social distancing and masking, and change social norms to protect public health.
Singapore’s SG Clean Ambassador program was launched in February to disseminate information on COVID-19, change social norms, and demonstrate good public health practices. Volunteer ambassadors speak with people in food markets, shops, and other public areas to remind them about social distancing, mask compliance, and other practices that can help reduce the spread of the virus. Volunteers may be employees from industries idled by the COVID-19 economic crisis.
About SG Clean, SG Clean (A Singapore Government Agency Website), undated
Grounded by COVID-19, These Pilots and Cabin Crew Now Educate the Public on Safe Distancing, Channel News Asia, April 9, 2020
Sign up as a SG Clean Ambassador! Clean Green Singapore May 31, 2020 [Video]
SG Clean Ambassadors Network Launched To Promote The Adoption Of 7 Habits Of Good Public Hygiene, New Social Norms For Different Settings, And Safe Distancing Requirements, National Environment Agency, March 29, 2020
Singapore Shows What the New Clean Is With Audit Initiative for Hotels, Skrift, April 13, 2020
Coronavirus: Network of SG Clean Ambassadors Launched to Promote Safe Distancing, Good Hygiene, The Straits Times, March 29, 2020
Industry-Specific Clean Certifications
Encouraging employees and businesses to follow clean standards through certification, including 15 industry-specific checklists.
In Singapore, businesses can qualify as “SG Clean Certified” when an independent inspection finds that the business meets guidelines that are specific to its industry. For employees, the standards pertain to personal hygiene and safety (e.g. handwashing, temperature checks, use of tissues, etc.), work area cleanliness, and keeping public toilets clean. For businesses, the government spells out specific standards for 15 sectors, ranging from street hawkers to schools, transport nodes, hotels, and cruise terminals. The sector-specific checklists, e.g. for shopping malls, could be used as a model for businesses in other countries. Businesses certified as “SG Clean” presumably attract more customers than those that are not. Any business that fails the inspection can reapply after fixing noted deficiencies.
Related Ideas: Clean Ambassadors
How to be Certified, Singapore Government Agency Website, undated
Public Toilet Campaign, Singapore Government Agency Website, undated
Assessments by Sectors, Singapore Government Agency Website, undated
Singapore Shows What the New Clean Is With Audit Initiative for Hotels, Skrift, April 13, 2020
Shopping Mall: Checklist for SG Clean Programme. Singapore Government Agency Website, updated April 1, 2020
Digital Check-In System
Creating a digital log of population movement to expedite contact tracing efforts.
Singapore has implemented SafeEntry, a national digital check-in system, in over 16,000 venues, as an aid to contact tracing. SafeEntry check-in points log the IDs and mobile numbers of individuals visiting hotspots, workplaces of essential services, as well as selected public venues to prevent and control the transmission of COVID-19 (see video). The arrival and exit of all visitors is logged by scanning location-specific QR codes into the SingPass mobile app or scanning individual identification cards. All employees, associates, or vendors are required to check-in digitally as they enter the premises. The system is further expanding to all operating businesses and taxi services. The digital tool is an efficient alternative to manual tracing efforts, expediting the ability to recognize and respond to outbreaks.
SafeEntry, Singapore Government Agency Website, undated
COVID-19 SafeEntry Digital Check-In System Deployed to More Than 16,000 Venues, Channel News Asia, May 9, 2020 [with short video]
Fight the Spread of COVID-19 With Contact Tracing, The Straits Times, May 30, 2020
Digital Contact Tracing Tools Required For All Businesses and Services Operating During the Circuit Breaker, Singapore Government Agency Website, May 3, 2020
SafeEntry For Cabs: Passengers Urged By LTA to Scan QR Code, The Straits Times, May 12, 2020
South Korea to use QR codes for entering ‘high-risk areas’ to contain COVID-19, ZDNet, June 10, 2020
In Coronavirus Fight, China Gives Citizens a Color Code, With Red Flags, The New York Times, March 1, 2020
AI-Based Temperature Scanning
AI-based thermal scanning is a superior way to test crowds for temperature than traditional one-by-one testing with forehead thermometers
In China, AI-powered thermal scanners are widely used in hospitals, schools, airports, and other public spaces. The advanced thermal scanner Firetinas is capable of measuring body temperatures and monitoring mask compliance, and has been utilized in the reopening of schools. Chinese police use AI-based smart helmets developed by Kuang-Chi Technology, with attached infrared cameras that can rapidly measure the temperatures of crowds, scan QR codes, and employ facial recognition technology. Rokid created AI-powered smart glasses, which can be worn by security personnel to scan the temperature of crowds.
How China Is Using AI and Big Data to Fight the Coronavirus, Al Jazeera, March 1, 2020
The AI Temperature Scanner Firetines Helps 31 Chinese Schools Reopen After COVID-19, Business Wire, April 15, 2020
Chinese Police Now Have AI Helmets For Temperature Screening, South China Morning Post, February 28, 2020
Hangzhou Park Security Uses AI-Powered Smart Glasses to Detect People With Fever, South China Morning Post, March 26, 2020
How Singapore Built an AI Temperature Tool in Two Weeks, GovInsider, February 14, 2020
Coronavirus: New AI-Driven Temperature Screening Device to Save Time and Manpower, The Straits Times, February 12, 2020
Taiwan Hospital Deploys COVID-19 Detection Device With Microsoft AI, Technology Record, March 31, 2020
Sensetime Uses AI to Fight Novel Coronavirus Outbreak, China Daily, February 20, 2020
Reopening after a lockdown is likely to lead to sporadic flare-ups that must be quickly identified and controlled through aggressive monitoring and containment
Worldwide, reopening appears to lead to a resurgence in cases. How governments respond to new outbreaks will be critical to the success of their reopening strategies. In Singapore, reopening has meant more infections linked to workplaces, as opposed to homes. In response, the government said employers should ask everyone to work from home, and, if that is not possible, to observe social distancing at work. The government also tracks how many positive cases had no known source of infection, because that suggests that community transmission is occurring undetected. So, when two households in one street were found to have COVID-19, the entire block was tested to prevent further spread.
Wuhan, China, where COVID-19 originated, went into lockdown in January 2020. The unprecedented quarantine – over 11 million people in total were instructed to remain at home – was finally lifted in April. After a month with no new cases, six new cases were identified in early May. The government’s response was to quickly launch a massive testing campaign; all 11 million residents were to be tested over ten days using batch testing performed by thousands of medical staff. One goal of the testing was to identify and isolate all positive cases, including asymptomatic ones, to prevent a second wave. While the Wuhan approach may seem excessive, it is one option for managing a hotspot after reopening.
In South Korea, which never went into a Wuhan-esque lockdown, robust contact tracing and free, anonymous testing services have proven effective at handling case clusters. After relaxing rules, the country reported less than 100 cases per day since the beginning of April. But in May 2020, a patron visited several clubs in Seoul before testing positive for COVID-19 which became a superspreader event. Dozens of cases linked to those nightclubs emerged in the following days. Even though patrons had been asked to leave their names and phone numbers when entering, some left false information, making contact tracing harder, prompting South Korea’s establishment of anonymous testing sites.
The lesson for other countries is that cities or states that have brought COVID-19 under control must be vigilant in their surveillance for flare-ups after reopening. They must quickly test, trace, and quarantine, while reclosing bars, clubs, or other businesses as necessary.
Coronavirus: More People Getting Infected at Workplaces Following Phase 2 Reopening, The Straits Times, July 7, 2020
Wuhan to Test Entire 11 Million Population as Infections Reemerge, Caixin Global, May 13, 2020
Here’s How Wuhan Plans to Test All 11 Million of Its People for Coronavirus, The New York Times, May 14, 2020
Reopening the World: How to Deal With an Invisible Enemy — South Korea’s War on COVID-19, Brookings, June 16, 2020
Emerging COVID-19 Success Story: South Korea Learned the Lessons of MERS, Our World in Data, June 30, 2020
South Korea’s New Coronavirus Cases Show the Perils of Reopening, Vox, May 11, 2020
South Korea and Singapore offer lessons on how national elections can be conducted safely in the midst of a pandemic
In April, South Korea became the first country to hold a major national election since the start of the pandemic. Novel campaigning methods were employed amid social distancing requirements: candidates primarily communicating through social media and campaign teams initiated community disinfection efforts. More than 14,000 polling stations throughout the country were prepared for in-person voting. At the polls, mask-wearing voters had their temperatures checked upon arrival (those with high temperatures were taken to a separate polling area) and were provided hand sanitizer and plastic gloves. Waiting lines were marked with tape to enforce social distancing. Special arrangements were made for voters who were infected with the virus; they could either vote by mail or at specialized voting booths set up at treatment facilities. Voter turnout was notably higher than the previous election in 2016.
Similar measures have also been employed in Singapore, which announced plans to hold elections in July. The government released detailed safety guidelines for in-person voting stations with strict social distancing and hygiene measures, and time slots to minimize waiting times. Unlike South Korea, Singapore did not allow mail-in voting, citing verification concerns.
The experiences of South Korea and Singapore provide an example for other countries, where voter safety is an important issue in upcoming elections. As of this writing, over 56 countries have postponed national or regional elections due to the pandemic.
South Korea’s Coronavirus Test Run: How to Hold an Election, The Wall Street Journal, April 18, 2020 [With short video]
COVID-19 Changes Traditional Campaigning Methods in South Korea, Arirang News, March 16, 2020 [Video]
How South Korea Is Holding a Nationwide Election in the Midst of a Pandemic, Quartz, April 7, 2020
S Korea to Hold First National Election Amid COVID-19 Outbreak, Al Jazeera, April 14, 2020 [with short video]
South Korea Holds Elections Under Strict Safety Measures Amid Coronavirus Pandemic, World Economic Forum, April 15, 2020
Singapore Calls For Election Despite Pandemic, The New York Times, June 23, 2020
In Singapore, an Orderly Election and (Somewhat) Surprising Result, The New York Times, July 10, 2020
How Voting Will Be Safely Conducted If Done During COVID-19 Situation, Singapore Government Agency Website, June 8, 2020
ELD Sets Out Safety Measures For Voters Ahead of Election, The Straits Times, June 9, 2020
The Coronavirus Is Delaying Elections Worldwide, Foreign Policy, May 22, 2020
South Korea Goes to the Polls, Coronavirus Pandemic or Not, The New York Times, April 10, 2020
How to Hold an Election in a Pandemic, South Korean Style, VOA News, April 7, 2020 [With short video]
Safe Voting on Polling Day (10 July 2020), Government of Singapore, July 1, 2020 [With short video]
Coronavirus Disrupts Singapore General Election Campaigning, China Global Television Network, June 28, 2020 [With short video]
Global Impact of COVID-19 On Elections, International Foundation for Electoral Systems, March 20, 2020
International Safe Travel Corridors
Travel corridors, or “bubbles,” are being developed to restart international travel
As countries consider how to restart international travel amid the pandemic, safe travel corridors or “travel bubbles” emerged as a novel strategy. In May, the first travel corridor was established between China and South Korea, allowing limited business travel between specific cities in a “fast-track” channel. Strict conditions have been set: travelers first need to receive an invitation from a company based in the other country, complete two weeks of health screenings, and get tested before departure. Upon arrival, there is a two-day quarantine and another test. Despite the requirements, local companies have shown strong interest in the program, and business travel between the two countries has slowly resumed. Similarly restrictive travel corridors have been developed between China and Singapore, where travelers from either country must apply for visas in advance and undergo two rounds of testing.
Several other Asian countries were in discussions to form additional travel bubbles, including Vietnam, Malaysia, Thailand, Brunei, and Indonesia. A “Trans-Tasman Bubble” was also in development between Australia and New Zealand. In Europe, the “Baltic Travel Bubble” was set up between Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia to allow for free travel with a 14 day self-isolation period upon arrival.
Despite the initial interest, several news sources reported the concept of travel bubble had “burst” by the end of August. Potential arrangements, such as the Trans-Tasman Bubble, were postponed or canceled due to new COVID-19 outbreaks.
How ‘Travel Bubbles’ Are Replacing Quarantines Around the World, Forbes, May 18, 2020
China, South Korea Ease Border Controls For Business Travel, Bloomberg, April 29, 2020
China, South Korea Move to Revive Business Travel Between Them, The Wall Street Journal, April 29, 2020
International Airline Travel Creeps Back With “Bubble” Corridors, Bloomberg, May 18, 2020
Singapore and China Set Strict Rules For Airtight ‘Travel Bubble’, Nikkei Asian Review, June 3, 2020
Coronavirus-Torn Asia Looks to Reconnect With ‘Travel Bubbles’, Nikkei Asian Review, June 2, 2020
What a Trans-Tasman Bubble Could Look Like For Australia and New Zealand, Forbes, May 25, 2020
Baltics Open Europe’s First Pandemic ‘Travel Bubble’ As Curbs Ease, Reuters, May 14, 2020
Remember the ‘Travel Bubble’? Here’s How It Burst, The New York Times, August 28, 2020
What Happened to Travel Bubbles?, The Skift, August 12, 2020
Welcome to a World of Bubbles, Foreign Policy, June 1, 2020
Mayalsia Plans Travel Bubbles With Singapore and Brunei, Bloomberg, June 25, 2020
Across Asia, Rising COVID-19 Case Numbers Burst All Hopes of Travel Bubbles, South China Morning Post, August 19, 2020