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The hopes, fears and reality as schools open worldwide

After months of distance learning, students around the world are returning to the classroom -- even though many countries are bracing themselves for a second wave of coronavirus infections. What does the pandemic mean for children, parents and teachers this academic year? We take a global look, with special correspondents Olly Barratt, Lucy Hough, Patrick Hok and Michael Baleke reporting.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    After months of homeschooling, students across the globe are back in the classroom, even as people brace themselves for a second wave of infections from the coronavirus pandemic.

    We now look at the issues facing millions of schoolchildren, their parents and teachers around the world, from countries in Asia, Africa, and Europe, but, to begin, from the United Kingdom.

    Here's special correspondent Olly Barratt.

  • Olly Barratt:

    Britain's schools are back, with children returning to classrooms for the first time since March. After weeks of remote learning because of coronavirus lockdown, this start of school received a cautious welcome.

  • Charlotte Wesly:

    I'm excited to come back because I have missed being here, and I will be able to catch up on extra work, and I will be able to see my friends and teachers. But, obviously, it's nervous coming back.

  • Olly Barratt:

    Across the U.K., all schools have been told to reopen and all children urged to return.

    But the unprecedented impact of the coronavirus pandemic means reopening is, by its very nature, an experiment. Schools have to follow guidance from the government limiting contacts between different groups of children, extra cleaning measures, desks which all face in the same direction.

    Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson has described it as a national priority to get schools back. There have been concerns from teaching unions and some parents about safety, and also about whether schools returning could help the virus spread more quickly.

    But most teachers have been keen to get back behind their desks.

    School principal Andy Fitzgibbon:

  • Andy Fitzgibbon:

    We do have a moral duty to open our doors and get our children back in to education and get them back into learning. I think it's really important.

  • Olly Barratt:

    The national priority status given to schools being open effectively means that, if and when lockdown measures need to be reimposed, schools will stay open, while other parts of the economy, such as pubs, could be forced to close down again.

    But to be completely sure classrooms don't empty once more, that will depend on the direction of the COVID-19 outbreak in the United Kingdom.

  • Lucy Hough:

    This is Lucy Hough, across the English Channel in Belgium, where school is also back on, despite rising COVID-19 case numbers since July.

    For Laurence Glidden, mother of three, it's a relief. Six months of home learning have been a challenge.

  • Laurence Glidden:

    This year has been really shortened. We are now entering second grade, and he's not able to read or to write, as my other children did.

  • Lucy Hough:

    He is not alone in falling behind. Studies show school closures have widened the attainment gap between disadvantaged students and their classmates, and the largest gaps are for younger children.

    At the Montgomery School in Brussels, Belgium's capital, there's catching up to be done and new rules to be followed.

  • Danielle Franzen Daoudy:

    They were able to follow online classes, so we adjusted the schedule a bit for them, but we still managed to finish the program.

  • Lucy Hough:

    Belgium's schools have reopened under a four-color code system, currently on yellow, meaning a full-five day week. Masks are mandatory at all times for kids over 12, with contact limited to small class bubbles.

    If there's a major outbreak, and it moves to code red, class sizes for older pupils would be halved and school time cut to two days a week.

    Playgrounds like this one are also emptier than usual. Children returning from summer holidays from high-risk red zones are being asked to quarantine for 14 days, even as the new academic year begins.

    But, across Europe, cracks are already starting to show. Several schools in Belgium have already had to close due to localized outbreaks. France and Germany have also seen dozens of closures.

    As the spread of COVID-19 accelerates across Europe, teachers and their unions are concerned about safety, with some calling for stricter measures and limits on class sizes.

    Measures differ across Europe, but there is agreement that the benefits of attending school outweigh the risks.

  • Michael Baleke:

    This is Michael Baleke in Uganda.

    Millions of children in countries across Africa are back in the classroom, despite a surge in the COVID-19 cases on the continent. Schools in Tanzania reopened in June, after three months of the COVID-19 lockdown, many with no running water and working toilets, but classrooms are packed to full capacity.

  • Gianna Komu:

    We believe in God, and God will help us. And, plus, we wear masks these days.

  • Michael Baleke:

    Tanzania stopped publishing official figures on the extent of the coronavirus outbreak in April.

    This was followed by a declaration by President John Magufuli that the country is free from the pandemic, ordering all schools to reopen with COVID-19 guidelines in place.

    International public health experts are skeptical about the claim that Tanzania is free from the pandemic, warning, if it exists in one country, it's bound to spread. South Africa continues to carry the heaviest burden of COVID-19 on the continent, with nearly half of all new cases.

    The government reopened schools in June. But some parents have been reluctant to allow their children back to class because of a surge in cases.

  • Simphiwe Nondwayi:

    Most of them, they were afraid of this COVID. Hence, they decided to stay at their homes. And their parents, they said, no, their learners must not go to school. You see? Yes. But most of them, they are at school. They are working.

  • Michael Baleke:

    The Democratic Republic of Congo is using a phased approach to reopen schools. For now, the only classes in session are those for students in their final term before graduating. The plan is for the rest of the students to return in October.

    According to the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the continent has more than 1.3 million confirmed cases of COVID-19 and over 31,000 deaths. How the response to the virus affects millions of school-aged children is a source of concern for all 54 African nations.

    In some African countries, like here in Uganda, schools remain closed, for fear that the pandemic might get out of hand.

    Distance learning in Africa is difficult, and sometimes impossible, given that 80 percent of students have no access to the Internet. For many students, electricity is unreliable. Others have no electricity at all in their homes.

  • Matshidiso Moeti:

    The longer the children are out of school, the greater the risk that they may not return to school.

  • Michael Baleke:

    The U.N. argues that reopening schools too quickly in Africa could undermine the gains made so far in curbing the spread of COVID-19.

  • Patrick Fok:

    This is Patrick Fok in Beijing.

    At schools here, students arrive staggered, by grade, and line up in front of their teacher, before they're allowed inside, passing through a screening point, where students have their temperature taken.

    There's one more check once they reach the classroom. This is part of what's called the anti-pandemic new normal in Beijing, to keep COVID-19 at bay, strict order from kindergarten all the way through to high school.

  • Student (through translator):

    They're doing lots of things, like alcohol disinfection, using temperature measuring guns, and they make us wear masks all day long.

  • Patrick Fok:

    Close to 600,000 students are now back to school in the Chinese capital. For some, it's a second attempt at getting class under way.

    Some middle and high schoolers returned in April, before a cluster of infections here in June forced schools closed again. But there've been no locally transmitted cases in Beijing since the end of July.

    Across China, people are confident the country's overcoming the virus. Masks aren't mandatory anymore in public. Some students don't see the point of following school rules.

  • Student (through translator):

    Sometimes, I will take it off for a while. I'm not being watched strictly all the time.

  • Patrick Fok:

    Because it's the political heart of China, Beijing's had some of the strictest COVID prevention protocols in the country.

    A lot of restrictions are now gradually being lifted, particularly as new cases of infections have dwindled nationwide. But authorities aren't likely to lift the lid on containment measures altogether anytime soon.

    Complacency could plunge the country back under the grip of the virus. South Korea's learned the hard way. It's grappling with a resurgence, after the government loosened restrictions early in August. About 200 cases were linked to a school in Seoul, forcing authorities to put classes on hold.

  • Yoo Eun-Hae (through translator):

    The cities of Seoul, Incheon and Gyeonggi province will switch to full remote learning.

  • Patrick Fok:

    Final year students taking college entrance exams are exempt. But it's unclear when others can go back.

    COVID cases in Japan are comparatively stable. Students there returned early in August. It's just as well. Remote learning was hardly an option. The pandemic's exposed a massive digital divide in the country.

    A Ministry of Education survey found just 10 percent of public schools offered online instruction after schools were shut in March. Critics say Japan's fallen behind in classroom technology, and students are overreliant on textbooks and lack tablets.

    In Hong Kong, there's another row over textbooks as schools prepare to reopen. The government is accused of censoring them to promote patriotic education.

  • Kevin Yeung:

    I would not say it's political screening.

    What we do is, professionally, we look at the textbooks already in market, and provide some professional advice to the publisher.

  • Patrick Fok:

    There are fears also about how the new and vaguely worded national security law will impact schools. Pushed through by Beijing to quell unrest and calls for independence, some teachers and students worry what they say in schools may land them in trouble.

    And with tensions still simmering among many student protesters, how schools in Hong Kong handle COVID only adds to their problems.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Patrick Fok in Beijing.

  • Michael Baleke:

    I'm Michael Baleke in Kampala.

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