School Reopening: Sharing an experience from South China

Coronavirus (COVID-19)

This article is part of a collection of blog posts related to the education in emergencies response to COVID-19. 

Research into the best practices of EiE, West Africa’s epidemiological experience with Ebola, and Asia’s response to the SARS epidemic all yielded valuable takeaways — even for a school operating in a hyper-modern tech hub. 

All things considered, our school has arguably had it easy during this pandemic. As a private institution, we were able to activate emergency funding quickly, leverage social and human capital to launch our online program in time for the previously scheduled return from the national holiday, and rely on expansive and consistent internet connectivity. Salaries were paid, access to education was protected, and our school community stayed healthy.

Reopening safely in May was possible as a result of already having running water on our campus, the availability of widespread testing, and our families’ efforts to report on their children’s health. Precisely because our school community has not been facing hunger, housing insecurity, or this public health crisis without the essential resources to stay safe, we have had the responsibility to consider and enact policies and practice that ensure quality and equity in all phases of our students’ educational experience. 

While we have done our best and have much to show for our Herculean efforts, the reality is that our school is located in Shenzhen, China, and we were among some of the first to respond to this dynamic set of new circumstances. At the time we were planning for our physical campus reopening, the major international school networks, including the one to which we belong, had not yet offered the series of webinars and consultancy packages aimed at helping schools like ours adjust to the “new normal” that they would eventually deliver. 

As such, triangulating considerations from education, public health, and sociology was the strategic opportunity that we could identify. Research into the best practices of education in emergencies (EiE), West Africa’s epidemiological experience with Ebola, and Asia’s response to the SARS epidemic all yielded valuable takeaways — even for a school operating in a hyper-modern tech hub. 

Beyond the logistical recommendations from the INEE Minimum Standards, which have varying degrees of relevance depending on the context, the field’s connective threads back to emotional wellness, communication, and coordination have been truly resonant across our international faculty who are currently teaching and leading from seven different countries. As a school principal, the accessibility of EiE frameworks affirmed priority focus areas, and furnished me with a vernacular with which to articulately facilitate virtual reopening meetings with teachers, write the re-entry letter to parents, and send video messages to students.

At our dual-language immersion school, we are endeavoring to operationalize a concept-based curriculum. While it is of course aligned with national standards and comes to life in many of the traditional subject areas, the idea is that our students always make the link back to major conceptual understandings that transcend the range of competencies and courses. Extending to our theory of change, we are strategically trying to prepare adults who will be confident and capable of being creative and brave in times like these.

In thinking about what we are teaching that ties directly to the work we all are pioneering as educators in the time of COVID-19, the STEM concepts of relationships, interactions, and connections surface as the most pertinent. As my fellow school leaders can empathize, our work is always centered around that intangible nexus of the global and the specific; our current set of circumstances further characterizes this truth. Within the context of reopening schools, these three concepts offer us a lens through which to consider this process.

COVID-19 has challenged us to think even more carefully about how we are relating to our faculty and families. Much of this work has manifested in coordinated communication; and thoughtfulness around sequencing, timing, honesty, and compassion has been paramount. We have been deliberate about taking this opportunity seriously to live up to our professional standards, as well as our institution’s core values. By asking ourselves what is relevant, when it might be so, and for whom, we have demonstrated our intention to relate directly with the people coming back to our school and not simply the identities they assume as faculty, staff, parents or students. 

Central to our school’s approach has been leveraging the expertise of our Counseling Department. By incorporating core tenets of social and emotional learning (SEL) already being taught at our school, and aligning our planning to the best of our ability with the IASC Guidelines on Mental Health and Psychosocial Support in Emergency Settings, we operationalized a three-phase school reopening plan. With a sequential focus on 1. preparation, 2. prevention, and 3. response, we have been able to better relate to, and then meet, the authentic social and emotional needs of our school community’s stakeholders. New initiatives on campus such as a Refocus Room, a non-disciplinary space for regulation, and a recently-recruited Care Team, stand out as exemplars of adaptive and responsive solutions we implemented to support students and teachers alike. 

It has been stunning to think through, and then subsequently experience, the various permutations of the logistical components of school reopening. At many moments, it has felt as if the “domino effect” of another single, minor adjustment would get the better of us. By mapping out the ways in which scheduling, health regulations, transportation, student transitions, and reduced staffing — to name only a few things — would all interact with one another, we were able to mitigate some undesirable implications. Of particular salience in this process has been the Global Education Cluster COVID Response Framework. The integrated design of the framework gave us clear direction toward measurable objectives, practical activities to prioritize, as well as relevant resources to consider. The framework’s language around resilient and inclusive systems reinforced both the profound interrelatedness we were noticing, as well as the fragility of the complex restoration work we had underway with reopening.

In some circles, an emerging central thesis about this pandemic experience is that we are all connected. As educators, what we choose to prioritize, how we choose to deliver our messages, and the space from which we choose to operate all have influence beyond our immediate relationships, our sector, and the countries in which we work. The physical absence and emotional strain experienced by so many are difficult to reconcile with the reality that through technology we are more connected, be it productively or socially, than ever before. The juxtaposition poses an interesting challenge for us as we make our next, iterative determinations about what types of connections we want our reopened schools to foster. In making those meaningful decisions, there are a multitude of right answers; and context matters profoundly. It will be up to us to be wise enough to recognize and adopt the guidance that will most certainly come our way.


Alli Spring has spent the last three years working at NCIC-Immersion School in Shenzhen, China as a Founding and Middle School Principal. Formerly a high school Spanish teacher, Alli’s role in establishing this dual-language immersion program has centered on curriculum design, teacher development, and building the academic systems needed to launch a start-up school. In recent months, however, Alli has been drawing on her graduate research experience with Fundación Escuela Nueva and takeaways from her Peace Corps Colombia service to ensure continuity and quality of educational programming for her school in Shenzhen in the COVID-19 context.  


The views expressed in this blog are the author's own.