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Reopening Schools: Reflections from COBIS Schools

While schools in many countries remain closed, a number of schools within the COBIS network, in various countries, have been reopening or are preparing to reopen. In addition to the recent Blog from the British International School of Ljubljana about their experience of reopening, we have asked some COBIS heads to share their experience and advice with the wider network.

Thank you to Brian Cooklin from Nord Anglia International School Hong Kong, Matthew Williams from Byron College, Greece, Charles Dalton from Rygaards International School, Denmark, and Suzanne Aspinall from The British School in The Netherlands for sharing their thoughts.

What is the school’s current position in terms of re-opening (how long, which year groups, local requirements)?

Nord Anglia International School Hong Kong:

The school is reopening in phases, starting from 20 May. We were allowed some flexibility in doing so. We started with Year 6 and 7. This was because they had missed a lot of our normal transition programme and we wanted to focus on them. It also allowed us to trial one primary and secondary year group in operation to test our social distancing and health measures.

Years 5, 8 and 9 returned next, followed by Years 10 and 12, Years 3 and 4, and Year 2. Year 1 will return mid-June. Year 11 are involved in an online pre-IB programme, and Nursery and Reception are not yet allowed to return.

Byron College:

Year 13 were permitted back on 11 May followed by the rest of secondary on 18 May. The Primary School reopened on 1 June. The school year has also been extended in our case until the end of June and will restart again on 1 September.

Rygaards International School:

All year groups are now back in school with a slightly adjusted timetable so as to reduce mixing pupils across classes.

The British School in The Netherlands:

Having been closed since 16 March, from Monday 11 May the BSN Junior Schools followed the Dutch government advice and began re-opening with half the students attending each day. In each year group, the students were grouped into A and B, alternating school-based and home-based learning days. 62% of the parents chose to send their children back to school for this first transitional period. Teachers continued to provide remote learning for the 48% of students remaining at home. (Read more about the school’s experience in this Tes article.)

Following the half-term break, on 3 June the BSN Junior Schools re-opened again deliberately choosing to run the alternating attendance pattern from 3-12 June before opening full-time on 15 June, one week later than recommended by the Dutch government. 93% of the parents chose to send their children back to school for this second transitional period. The BSN felt it was important to give the % of students who had only just returned to school-based learning a reasonable transition period whilst also ensure all students had the opportunity to get used to the adaptions made to the arrangements at school. The three BSN Junior Schools will open for full-time schooling from 15 June until 15 July.

What have you put in place to enable the school to re-open?

Nord Anglia International School Hong Kong:

·       Health declaration forms completed online in advance by all staff and parents

·       Temperature checks on entry with an isolation room set aside, as well as temperatures recorded by staff and parents each morning at home.

·       If the child does not have a signed record for each day then they cannot board the bus or enter school.

·       Sanitising gel is available in all rooms and areas and must be used on entry as well as change of periods or activities.

·       Masks must be worn by all staff and students at all times.

·       Social distancing must be maintained e.g. staying a step apart when on the staircase or when walking in the corridors. Class desks have been set apart and face the front so that they sit a safe distance apart.

·       We have only been given permission to open for half days as the government is concerned about lunchtime when masks are taken off to eat and social distancing could be abandoned thus helping disease to spread potentially.

Byron College:

·       Max of 15 students per class with minimum 1.5m spacing (most of our classes are 10 or 11 students due to the physical size).

·       Rooms blocked for each year group – staff go to students rather than the other way around.

·       Each class has 2 rooms whereby the teacher goes between the two with the lesson broadcast via Teams to the other room.

·       Separate entry and exit routes per year groups

·       No canteen (Government order), no contact sports or use of PE equipment, no computer use, no shared materials

·       Cleaning minimum twice per day, Extra hand sanitiser stations

·       Shorter working day (lesson time the same but a shorter break and lunch)

·       Quarantine room

·       Transport operating at 50% capacity

Rygaards International School:

·       Desks are set up so that pupils sit at the same desk all day with a distance of 1 meter, nose tip to nose tip.

·       The year groups start the day at different times, same procedure at end of day.

·       Play times are staggered and classes play in designated areas.

·       The school is disinfected twice a day.

·       All assemblies are cancelled.

·       Parents cannot enter the school grounds.

The British School in The Netherlands:

·       Staffing arrangements and timetables have been redesigned; staff are deployed to a staff ‘pod’, which restricts their teaching to a year group and area of the school irrespective of role.

·       The timetable has been redesigned to consider this and to build in more flexibility for extended playtimes outside, physical activity, staggered lunch and break times and a balance of academic, creative and pastoral learning opportunities. Each staff ‘pod’ is provided with its own staffroom / workroom.

·       Each classroom has less furniture and resources in it, to enable more space for moving around and to suit the needs of smaller groups of students.

·       Resources have been provided for each group A / B and are cleaned and swapped for the days when the respective students are in school.

·       Each classroom is provided with a hygiene pack and staff ensure that surfaces and resources are cleaned thoroughly throughout the day.

·       Hand washing is a regular practice reinforced for everyone each day.

·       Parents are unable to enter the school building. They drop off and pick up their children from designated doors around the outside of the building. To facilitate this, we operate a flexible drop off and pick up time between 8:30 – 9:00 and 15:00 – 15:30. All parent communication is via email and phone.

·       Student were provided with clear, reassuring instructions supported with pre-recorded videos from their class teachers. These included videos of how they should enter the school premises with their parents and where they would need to go to enter the building. This reassured the students and helped with any anxieties they had about returning. (Read more in this Tes article).


What has worked well?

Nord Anglia International School Hong Kong:

All the measures have worked well because of the staff’s commitment and the support of children and parents. A lot of time was spent preparing for this and a lot of thought went into it. The entry process and bus supervision are particularly good. We have a lot of staff – mainly middle and senior leaders – supervising the arrival of 29 buses and the disgorging of passengers on a busy road, maintaining safety and social distancing. The same applies to staff on entry checking temperatures and dispensing gel. Many more staff are supervising corridors and staircases which helps a lot.

Byron College:

It has helped that we ran through the process with all the teachers in school before the students returned. This dry run enabled us to iron out any of the issues.

It has also helped that only 60% of the students have physically returned.

Something that we did here at Byron that has been really well received by the parents was to send a video link for all parents with a tour to show them what to expect with the new measures.

·       Secondary video

·       Primary video

The school also produced a School Reopening Guide for Parents.

Rygaards International School:

All has gone surprisingly well. We have a golden opportunity to examine old traditions as change is much easier in these circumstances. Rygaards are also one of the few schools worldwide that has delivered the Duke of Edinburgh Award post-lockdown. Read more here.

The British School in The Netherlands:

The health and safety measures that were put in place helped to reassure the parents, staff and student population. Sending clear communication and accompanying videos and photos of what to expect when on the campus, worked very well to reassure students, parents and staff. The ‘pod’ system and the respective timetables have enabled us to create nurturing and calm daily experiences for the students. The students have enjoyed getting to know some of the staff members who normally would be working across the campus. We will be taking some lessons learnt from this into the developments for next academic year.

Having transition periods, which enabled parents to choose whether to send their children back to school or not, worked well. Parents liked having this choice and welcomed the gradual return to full-time school-based learning. Designing a timetable that enabled students to have more time than usual to play team games outside, engage in class-based lessons with their class teacher, explore creative activities and discuss issues as a group. This calm, holistic approach to their return to school has enabled all students and staff to settle back into this new arrangement in their own time.

What have the particular challenges been?

Nord Anglia International School Hong Kong:

The challenges have been to explain to parents why the year groups came back in phases and why other schools were allowed a different pattern so communications, as usual, are vital. Getting a supply of masks, changing the normal teaching layout in classes and still delivering a virtual school experience to those stranded in other countries and time zones while simultaneously delivering face to face teaching have been some other challenges!

Byron College:

Conducting lessons to the students who are physically here (over 2 rooms) and also to those who are still at home. Especially if the teacher is also remote.

Rygaards International School:

The greatest challenge has been anxious staff and personal interpretations of the rules.

The British School in The Netherlands:

The biggest challenge has been managing parent expectations about the format of Remote Learning. Throughout the last three months it has been important to maintain regular and personalised responses to all parental communication regardless of whether the requests can be granted. This personal contact has helped to reassure parents that we are listening and responding to feedback as and when appropriate.

For staff, the challenge has been managing the changing landscape and the demands of the next lot of plans at short notice. Wherever possible, we have managed this as best we can with clear communication, opportunities for professional dialogue and ways to meet individual needs.

One example of a need which was compromising many staffs’ ability to work, was childcare. We chose to open a childcare facility on the campus for staff’s children so that when not attending a school-based learning day, they could be looked after whilst their parent worked. This relieved a significant amount of pressure for the staff members concerned. Being flexible and adaptable to staffs’ individual circumstances has been important; where necessary we have used additional staff and redeployed senior leaders, in order to plug gaps.

What advice would you offer other schools preparing to reopen?

Nord Anglia International School Hong Kong:

My advice would be plan and discuss in detail and decide how the communication will happen. Apart from emails, social media messaging website items, we created how to videos for each stage explaining what would happen. If you can phase groups for entry rather than large numbers at once. That lets you amend operations before the full school has returned.

Good luck to everyone. who will be relieved to be back in the classroom albeit in a strange setting and with masks!

Byron College:

If it is possible to stay remote I would advise to do this for this term. Coming back is a challenge and breaks the remote system that you have built up and put in place. Delivering lessons to those who are remote and those that are physically here is tough.

Where possible, link up with the other schools in your area and follow the same process.

Rygaards International School:

My advice is for schools to quote word for word any official, local regulations when giving written guidelines to staff and parents. Do your best to avoid micro-management, it only births a thousand more questions.

The British School in The Netherlands:

There is a very fine balance between putting in measures that keep students, staff and parents safe whilst also not compromising the welcoming, calm and nurturing environment that the students love about their school. It is possible to get this balance right, particularly if you reduce the amount of furniture and resources in each classroom and prepare everyone well beforehand.

Making sure the staff feel safe and cared for is key. Obviously, if they feel good about being on the campus, the students will automatically feel more relaxed and secure. We spent a lot of time, creating timetables, protocols and staffrooms that would facilitate this.

So many positive experiences have come from re-opening our school. The staff have been exceptional in every way. They have built even stronger relationships with our parents and we would like to continue to build on this as we move forwards into next academic year. Being able to strip away all the added extras that enhance the educational experience for students in our kind of international school, and concentrate on the quality of the experience in the day-to-day classroom interaction with the class teacher, has been refreshing. It has enabled us to focus on relationships, interactions and the necessary curriculum coverage. This has invigorated the school-based experience for everyone.