My kids went back to school in China during the height of the pandemic. This is what US schools should learn.

·4 min read
Cindy Marie Jenkins and her family
Courtesy of Cindy Marie Jenkins
  • My children went back to school while we lived in China in 2020.

  • Strict policies helped keep children in school throughout the year.

  • There are a number of lessons the US can take away from our experience.

Back to school shouldn't be this painful, so full of worry. My family's previous "back to school" was in September 2020, in Beijing, where we lived for two years.

It felt safer there than in Orlando, Florida, where we are now. In Beijing, we went through multiple months with no COVID-19 infections in the city, even before there was a vaccine available.

The differences between our two governments are too large to get into here, and many of China's policies would be impractical if not outright impossible in the US, but China isn't the only place where school essentially runs as normal. New Zealand's also on track, thanks to high vaccination rates and an ambitious elimination plan.

Now that we are back in the US, I see there are some things my kids' school here could learn from Chinese schools.

Contact tracing, contact tracing, contact tracing

When a school found a suspected case in a Beijing classroom, the person remained anonymous, but all the parents were notified. That only happened once in the 2020-21 school year, and it wasn't even in our school.

Every day, parents had to input information into a "health kit" app, including their child's temperature, if they exhibited any symptoms of illness, or if they'd traveled outside of Beijing. A child could not get onto the bus or campus if their health kit was any color other than green, meaning they had no symptoms and had not been in a high-risk area.

It was annoying sometimes, sure, but my anxiety over the unknown was much lower.

Strict visitor policies were in place at school

All of the school holiday concerts were livestreamed or filmed for parents, which was better than worrying about who I was sitting next to, or worse, canceling festivities entirely. Parents even found that watching the concerts together over Zoom allowed us to celebrate via chat and bond more closely than if we were sitting together in an auditorium.

A staggered start time for the 2020-21 school year was put into place for each grade. Pre-COVID, caregivers would crowd into a common room and gather our children by classroom. Post-COVID, we waited outside the school gates until classrooms came out one by one, then parents entered school in a line and exited through the queue.

Everyone had to show a school ID and their health app, and wear a mask at all times, even outdoors.

Masks were mandated on campus at all times, except in PE and recess

Teachers and parents in our Chinese school had to stay masked indoors; kids aged 2 to 5 were the exceptions. To the US's credit, while touring preschools in Florida in November 2021, I was impressed with how many had mask mandates for adults and consistent cleaning procedures.

Primary schools are a different story. Many parents in Florida fought for weeks to get mask mandates in their school districts, despite a statewide ban on mandates. Schools in Florida that did impose mask mandates lifted them after Halloween because numbers looked low and children between 5 to 12 were able to get vaccinated.

We're dealing with that fallout now, as the number of infected people rises daily. And let's not forget those numbers are based on reports by people who were actually able to find an at-home test or appointment, both of which are increasingly difficult to get.

As of December 2021, only nine states have mask mandates in schools.

We could easily see school COVID case counts

In China, the government's Ministry of Education tracks individual COVID-19 cases in schools and holds press conferences when new ones pop up. In the US, there is little transparency about school case counts.

My own local school sends a robocall whenever there is a new infection with the number of infections and the last date that student was on campus. "Close contacts" are contacted separately, but what exactly constitutes a close contact seems arbitrary from school to school.

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