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Lessons On Reopening Schools The U.S. Could Learn From Germany, Israel And Thailand

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

That drumbeat sound you are hearing getting louder and louder this week as the days have passed, it's the drumbeat from the Trump administration to reopen American schools.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We want to reopen the schools. Everybody wants it. The moms want it. The dads want it. The kids want it.

BETSY DEVOS: Ultimately, it's not a matter of if schools should reopen; it's simply a matter of how.

VICE PRESIDENT MIKE PENCE: There's no substitute for in-classroom learning.

KELLY: But with the virus raging throughout much of the country, state and local officials are trying to figure out how on earth to make school reopening work. For answers, they might consider looking to educators overseas - places like Germany, Thailand, Israel - where students have already been back at school. We have convened one of our international roundtables to hear from NPR reporters from around the globe. And today, I am joined by Esme Nicholson in Berlin, Daniel Estrin in Jerusalem and Michael Sullivan in Chiang Rai, Thailand. Welcome to each of you.

MICHAEL SULLIVAN, BYLINE: Hi.

DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: Thank you.

ESME NICHOLSON, BYLINE: Hello.

KELLY: I am so burning with curiosity - just what does school look like in each of your countries right now? Esme, let me come to you first. What does school look like in Germany?

NICHOLSON: Well, it depends on where you are. Germany's education system differs from state to state, like in the U.S. But in most of Germany, students have been back in school since May, albeit on a part-time basis. And this is to allow for reduced class sizes and social distancing, meaning that students still study from home for some of the week. In terms of testing, well, there's not much of that going on. It's by no means a standard. And even Berlin's city education authorities recently announced that it doesn't expect students to follow social distancing rules as of the new school year, effectively acknowledging that younger students will ignore them anyway.

KELLY: Michael, I know, in Thailand, students just went back last week. How has it gone?

SULLIVAN: It's gone pretty well so far. I mean, it's been pretty normal, with a couple of tweaks. I drop my son off in the morning. They take his temperature. Then he goes to the bathroom to wash his hands before he enters the classroom. And then there's social distancing once he gets to the classroom, of course. But, I mean, that's pretty much it. Remember; Thailand, you know, we've only had a couple thousand cases here. There's been no domestic infection for more than five weeks. So normal seems pretty normal.

KELLY: Daniel, in Israel, it's been a little bit more of a complicated picture. School shut down because of the virus, and then it reopened. They did go back in May, and now it's out again. What happened?

ESTRIN: Well, what happened in Israel is quite a cautionary tale, I think. At first, the Israeli health professionals here urged the government, yes, let school resume again, but only let kids under the age of 9 go back to school, and keep it in small groups. And they said data around the world show that younger kids have a very low rate of infection and transmission.

But instead of just letting the younger kids go back to school, there were these last-minute negotiations. Ultra-Orthodox Jewish schools wanted the older kids to go back to religious studies, and so they did. And then 11th- and 12th-graders also went back to school. And so very, very quickly, everyone was back. And then very quickly after that, there was a heat wave, so the government said, well, kids don't need to wear masks anymore during this heat wave. And then we just saw big outbreaks in schools, and a lot of schools shut down for several weeks.

KELLY: I mean, that's the big question - is what happens when there's an outbreak? Esme, I'm sure Germany has confronted this. How's it been handled?

NICHOLSON: Indeed. We've already seen schools close again since they reopened in May, either because of an outbreak within a school or because of a surge in the infection rate locally. And when this happens, kids have to go back online and as far as that is possible. And Germany's health authorities - the CDC equivalent here - the Robert Koch Institute is already warning that they expect the second wave to hit at about the same time as flu season this fall. So we're likely to see schools shut down and reopen repeatedly.

KELLY: And in Thailand, Michael, since kids have only been back for a week, it sounds as though there almost hasn't been time for an outbreak yet. Any issues?

SULLIVAN: No, not yet because they haven't been back in school for that long, as you mentioned. If there is an outbreak, I mean, the solution here is clear - I mean, lock it down again, don't take chances, isolate, contact trace, quarantine and break the cycle of transmission.

KELLY: Yeah. Daniel, how about in Israel? How is the government handling this?

ESTRIN: Well, the government now is putting out a couple different contingency plans for September 1, when they hope to reopen. And so - but people don't know because we're right now in a second wave. And teachers, parents, students - they just don't know what's going to happen if they will be able to get back to school.

KELLY: That brings us to another of the big concerns that we are discussing in this country, which is it's not just kids who go back to school; it's teachers and staffers and employees and bus drivers. How has that played out where you are, Daniel?

ESTRIN: Well, I want to tell you about one teacher I just spoke with who was really frustrated. I mean, every - he said everything was just done on a whim. He felt he was the only teacher taking mask-wearing seriously. He said, you know, we did the best we can. School is just not about gaining a knowledge set; it's also kids getting a skill set. And kids had to deal with learning digitally, learning about being at home and concentrating on their own and dealing with uncertainty and do the best you can.

KELLY: Esme, how about in Germany?

NICHOLSON: Well, in Germany, the teachers unions say that - expect anywhere between 10% and 20% of their members to be away from the classroom because they're in at-risk groups. And for obvious reasons, they can't be forced to return to schools. Some schools are already reporting 30% fewer teachers. And this is really problematic because there was already a shortage of teaching personnel in Germany before the pandemic.

KELLY: The other obvious stakeholder here is parents. Michael, you described taking your kid to school, taking your son and watching them check his temperature as he walks in the door. How has it felt? And what are you hearing from other parents? Has it been scary?

SULLIVAN: It hasn't been scary, again, because of the success here. But, you know, there was concern the first day of school. There were a lot of us huddled up. I mean, we got out of our cars when we took our kids to school. We weren't allowed into the school, but we got out. And there's concern, but it looks like they're handling things pretty well. And so that, you know, made it a little less scary, I guess, for us.

KELLY: Wow. Any lessons from your part of the world that you think the United States can take from the experiences in your country - either things that feel directly applicable or things that are very different? Daniel?

ESTRIN: I think the lessons to be learned from Israel are listen to the health experts. The government here did not follow the health experts' guidelines to just open the younger grades and to have kids in small groups. They opened very fast, and there was no coherent policy. So listen to your health experts. Have a coherent policy.

KELLY: That was NPR's Daniel Estrin in Jerusalem, Esme Nicholson in Berlin and Michael Sullivan in Chiang Rai, Thailand. Thanks so much to all three of you.

ESTRIN: You're welcome.

NICHOLSON: Thanks for having me.

SULLIVAN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.