How Schools Abroad are Addressing COVID-19

Photo+Courtesy+of+U.S.+News+%26+World+Report.

Photo Courtesy of U.S. News & World Report.

At the end of spring break last school year, Punahou converted completely to online learning due to the rapid spread of the coronavirus. Around the globe, people were forced to shut down quickly to stay safe and to slow the spread of the virus. As a result, schools had to adapt quickly to the new circumstances. Around the world, schools are now open, but have approached this challenge in many different ways due to the circumstances of each respective country. I was able to interview teachers from different countries to learn how their school was able to handle such a difficult situation. All the schools that I was able to talk to have partnerships with Punahou through the Wo center and also participate in the Student Global Leadership Institute (SGLI). Through these partnerships, we are able to work together with international schools.

Photo Courtesy of Southwell School.

One of the first issues that schools had to face was how to ensure the safety of their students, especially how that pertains to their schedules. For Southwell School in Hamilton, Aotearoa, it wasn’t much of an issue. Unlike Punahou, Southwell teaches year 1-8 kids, their equivalent of Kindergarten through seventh grade, and is partially a boarding school. The entire country went into full lockdown on March 15th for seven weeks before students were able to come to school. There, school is almost the same as before the pandemic. Teacher Glen McKay said, “Currently, we have no restrictions in place. We do have hand sanitizer in each class to use, but other than this there are no restrictions. Students are able to sit together, learn together, eat together – everything together. We even had our school production – Hairspray – go ahead 3 weeks ago.” Aotearoa is considered one of the best countries that handled the virus and, as of November 15, the country has only 42 active cases including only four new cases that day. Most of the guidelines that we have established here in Hawaii don’t apply in Aotearoa due to their lack of cases, so most things have returned back to normal.

In all the schools I was able to interview, sanitation was a common element in their safety measures. Students are instructed to disinfect their tables as well as wash their hands frequently. Masks are also an important element for student safety. At Punahou, masks are mandatory inside and outside of the classroom, but at Kingussie High School, it is slightly different. Kingussie is a secondary school located in Kingussie, Scotland, a more rural area where cases have remained low. The students are instructed to wear their masks on the bus and in corridors, but not in classrooms or while eating. When asked about the policy, teacher Rachel Richards said, “To be perfectly honest I have no idea. It’s a Scottish Government policy as they believe the students come into closer contact with one another in the corridors and mix with more students. However in reality our class sizes are not reduced and the students are not in bubbles so [they] mix with a different group of students each lesson.” Here at Punahou, it is a lot different. With our block schedule in the orange tier, who we see in person is limited because we only go to a maximum of two classes per day due to not having in-person semester classes. Block classes are consistent through the term so students are only exposed to two groups of people. Through these safety measures, it makes it a lot more safe for us to return to school in person without fearing that we will be infected by COVID-19. 

The next issue is adapting or instituting phases in the school to make sure that the rules in place best fit the number of cases in the country. Most of the schools followed the government phases rather than initiating their own stages. Punahou is also doing something similar, but has designated levels that correspond to the CDC and state regulations. In Japan, where there was a big surge in cases earlier this year, Gakushuin Boys’ Junior and Senior High School started online learning when the country was completely shut down. Schools were shut down from April 8th to May 27th and afterwards, began shifting to in-person learning. Teacher Yamamoto Akio stated, “In June, we started face-to-face lessons, but half and half. In the first week, half of the students came to school and the other half were off-campus. In the next week vice versa.” Some schools in Hawaii are also using this method and bringing the students in different groups to minimize contact. This step could be used as a way to ease students into school when the cases are too high to admit all of them. If someone gets sick, a smaller group of people will have to self-isolate rather than the entire class. 

Photo Courtesy of Hitchin Girls’ School.

In terms of classes and the classroom setting, all the schools are doing similar things. From spacing out the desks to hand sanitizer, the safety aspect is definitely a leading factor. In the Hitchin Girls School in the United Kingdom, they have taken more strict precautions. Teacher Sara Edwards at the school states, “Students are now taught almost entirely in their form groups for yr 7-9 rather than setted groups but across the year for yr 10-13 due to subject choices. Classes/year groups are referred to as bubbles and mixing is avoided as much as possible. All bubbles have their own specified classrooms and areas of the school.” Similarly to Punahou, the school is limiting the spread by keeping students in smaller groups rather than let them mingle more. Hitchin Girls School is also making sure that students are socially distancing themselves by designating seats and making sure that the teachers stay at the front of the classroom at a reasonable distance. Scotland and Japan are similar to Hitchin’s Girls School in their safety measures but are slightly more lax in terms of the mingling of students.

A big part of school life for many students is about seeing friends and being social. Currently at Punahou, it’s very hard to socialize with friends because of the block schedule. Unless you’re in a block class with friends, it’s hard to talk to people you are familiar with. For many students, this is a factor in the decision of whether or not to do in-person learning. In a lot of the schools that I interviewed, there are a few restrictions regarding socializing between students, but for the most part, students are able to engage with each other. Teacher Struan Mellis from Kingussie High School states, “Students are able to socialise with their friends just the same as before the pandemic, the [seniors] didn’t have a common room for the first few weeks of term, but now have one, so socially everything’s pretty much the same, we just have to wear masks.” Despite the lack of restrictions, the school’s Christmas dance was also canceled, which could’ve served as a super spreader event. As a result of having less rules in place, there are a few negative aspects that come with this freedom. While the looser guidelines are great for students, it can be potentially dangerous for the teachers and staff. Rachel Richards, also from Kingussie, said, “As soon as they exit the school gates students can only be in groups of 6 and if eating out they can only be from 2 households. There is absolutely no logic to this. As a teacher with my sons as students in the same school, it seems crazy that they are not required to social distance therefore putting me potentially at risk. The Scottish Government seems to think school staff are immune.” So while the lack of these restrictions can seem freeing for students it may not be wise regarding the overall safety of everyone. For countries like Aotearoa, it would work to lift these limitations but for the safety of the rest of us, we need to work slowly to do this in a safe way. 

Photo Courtesy of My TechDecisions.

During this pandemic, we’ve had to adapt to new technology to keep us in school while we were not physically there. All the schools I was able to interview had some form of technology that they’ve had to rely on while they were not in person. Teacher Glen McKay from Southwell school states, “When we were at home we had remote learning using Google Meet, Google Classroom, and sent out a daily timetable. Students didn’t have to join in and nothing was compulsory – it was more about student well-being than academics. A lot of time was spent chatting, being a friendly face and making sure everyone was happy and supported.” Mental health isn’t stressed in a lot of the curriculum in many schools, rather curriculum is focused more on squeezing in all of the academic material. The shift in scheduling can prove difficult for many students and can result in a lot of unneeded stress. By prioritizing mental health, schools enable students to feel better about school and trust the teachers more. 

Similarly to Punahou, all the schools had some technology that functioned as an online classroom. Most of the schools used a Google platform in their curriculum like Google Classroom and Google Meet. Gakushuin Boys’ Junior and Senior High School instead used a platform called WebClass, which was largely unused until the lockdown. Teacher Yamamoto Akio states, “We had a short summer vacation of two weeks in August and we kept the half and half lesson style for two more weeks in September. After that some of the teachers including me have kept using Webclass. I found it to be a kind of meaningful by-product.” Very similarly to Punahou, many teachers have utilized it even when they have returned to in-person learning. While I’m not sure if Webex will continue to be a part of our learning once things have returned to some semblance of normalcy, it may be a good tool for something in the future. 

While looking towards other countries and their approach to the pandemic, we can really see what is effective for them and what is not. Of course some methods that may work in other countries could also prove ineffective for us but it could also strengthen our response to the virus at school. In the end we should remain as open-minded as possible to new ideas as we are all exploring different methods and solutions. Ultimately it should not be a competition between countries over who handles the pandemic the best. Rather it should be about everyone making it through this pandemic together and ensuring that safety is prioritized for everyone.