▶ Watch Video: Lessons for U.S. schools as students and teachers around the world return to class

London — Nearly 1.5 million children returned to school Tuesday morning in Wuhan, China, where the new coronavirus first emerged late last year. Educators all over the world have spent weeks working on plans to reopen their schools and keep students safe with COVID-19 still circulating — and even spreading in many places.

For most kids in the United Kingdom, it was back to school for the first time since March on Tuesday. As CBS News correspondent Roxana Saberi reports, the pandemic has created a new reality with a lot of new rules for British children.

Kids in the U.K. are supposed to clean their hands more often and maintain a social distance from others when possible. In hotspot areas with known COVID outbreaks, children are also supposed to wear masks when they’re in communal areas outside of classrooms.  

With more than 41,500 fatalities, the U.K. has Europe’s highest coronavirus death toll, and many teachers and parents worry that the return to school will speed up the spread of the virus in communities.


Schools struggle to contain COVID outbreaks

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But Prime Minister Boris Johnson has insisted that under the plans drawn up by his government, schools can reopen safely

“When I asked you what was going to make you nervous, not a single one of you — so far, anyway — mentioned coronavirus,” Johnson said to a group of 11- and 12-year-olds last week as they started the school year. “And you’re quite right, you’re quite right, because you shouldn’t be worried about it. Schools are safe and you’re going to have a fantastic time.”

PM Visits A School in the East Midlands
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson takes part in an induction session in the gym with year 7 pupils on their first day back at school during a visit to Castle Rock school in Coalville, England, August 26, 2020.

JACK HILL/Getty

At the Rosendale Primary School in London, teachers set up signs outside showing kids how to stand apart when they arrive. The students will stay in “bubbles” of about 30 kids, and start and end the day at different times.

Kate Atkins, the school’s principal, told CBS News that from her perspective, it was time to get kids back into classrooms — even if the way that’s done may have to keep evolving.

“Children need to be playing with each other and they need to be learning and developing, so I think we have to do everything we can do to make the school as safe as possible for children and staff to come to,” she told Saberi. “And also I expect there are changes we have to make as we go along.”

She knows it may require some creative improvisation, but schools all around the world are improvising.

In Shanghai, China, they’re measuring distances and placing desks accordingly, and even taking temperatures as kids return for the first day of the new term.


Schools scramble to keep kids safe on buses

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In France, where a recent rise in COVID-19 infections forced the government to admit that not all classes could reopen safely today as originally planned, everyone over age 11 now has to wear a mask, even in classrooms.

Germany has been experimenting with different measures for weeks. Face masks are required on school grounds but rarely in classrooms, and large groups of kids are kept apart. So far, the results look hopeful: There have been no serious outbreaks and no lasting closures.

Back at Rosendale in London, Kate Atkins said that, for any school, success will be turning this year’s extraordinary adversity into a lesson for life.

“What we want to do as educators is make kids understand the world around them, and make it fun,” she said.

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