Back to school?

The impact of coronavirus as China’s international schools prepare to reopen

 Stephanie Quayle of ISC Research looks at how schools may be coming through the lockdown phase in China, and what we can all learn from their experience.

Phased return

There are several key challenges facing international schools in China as they begin to re-open their doors to students. Some schools have already opened and are working on a phased approach to getting all their students back to school. Schools in Beijing and in Shanghai are making plans to re-open, with many hoping that they can start back with their graduating classes, grades 9 and 12 at the end of April, and for some other grades after the May bank holiday. The youngest children will be the last to return to school.

ISC Research understands that China has made the decision to welcome grade 9 and grade 12 pupils back to school first for a number of reasons. Chinese pupils still have national exams, grade 12 pupils will take the Gaokao test, the college entrance exams, one month later than initially scheduled on 7th and 8th July, with grade 9 pupils taking the Zhongkao tests for senior high school towards the end of July.

There is a view that maintaining social distancing with the older pupils will be easier for schools to manage, and that parents of younger children may find it easier to get back to work in China, as typically grandparents manage the childcare for them. Although the GCSEs, A levels and IB diploma exams have been cancelled this year, international schools expect to follow the same format as the Chinese schools.

Standards for reopening

Schools in China need to be granted permission to re-open by their local education bureau. Schools are inspected and assessed against a number of stringent measures by their education bureau, by the public health authorities and by the food hygiene agency. The areas of assessment include their systems for limiting access to their campus; their procedures for taking and checking staff, pupil and visitor temperatures; their plans for recording everyone’s green QR health codes; the arrangements they have made to ensure heightened cleaning and sanitising regimes; their systems to manage pupil gatherings such as staggered dining and online assemblies broadcast to classrooms; and protocols for managing suspected virus cases during the school day.

Meeting learning needs

International public examinations have been cancelled, but some schools are particularly concerned for their current year 10 and year 12 students (grades 9 and 11, the first year of International GCSE and the first year of International A levels or IB diploma programme).  In China, parents of younger primary age children can be just as concerned about lost learning, as parents with older students facing exams.

Most international schools in China adapted their distance learning provision as closures were extended. Some schools have developed and rolled out extensive e-learning programmes, teachers have been setting work and following the school timetable, with lesson plans uploaded for their classes. Some teachers have been producing instructional videos to introduce learning or to give feedback to students. ICT teams have supported by providing staff training in the use of new platforms. Teachers have had to be creative when planning and preparing their lessons and think about the resources that the children will have at home.

Finding out what has worked

Schools are aware that children are missing out on the social interaction of learning and many have now been offering live on-line lessons as well as running parent/teacher meetings online. Some international schools have been surveying their teachers, parents, and their students to find out what is working well and what could be improved and have then adapted their provision.  Online learning has proved particularly difficult for younger children who are unable to work independently. Some schools have been very creative with their support for their youngest years by developing new ways for delivering storytelling, phonics games, PE exercises, maths puzzles and more.

What parents are asking

Despite the significant efforts of teachers, students and their parents, online learning, regardless of how well it is planned and executed, cannot replicate the classroom experience.  Many experiences and opportunities will have been missed.  Some parents are asking schools how they intend to address gaps in learning when their child’s school re-opens. Parents are asking about the possibility of schools extending their school day or delivering weekend lessons. Some parents are asking their schools to extend the school year or offer free summer schools.

Fake news!

Schools are learning to challenge fake news about what their competitors are offering; some parents are making claims about what other schools are doing; but when checked, the claims often prove inaccurate. Some parents are seeking a rebate on this year’s tuition fees, or a freeze or reduction in next year’s fees. Some schools are considering one-off bursaries for families who are experiencing temporary financial difficulty.

Wellbeing of children and adults

Many international schools have reported an increase in their efforts to address wellbeing with students due to higher levels of stress and disconnection. Measures being taken include offering virtual sessions with counsellors, increasing communication about wellbeing, connecting students both inside and outside classes, group challenges revolving around fitness and creativity, and tutor periods scheduled to provide structure to a day. In terms of teacher wellbeing, schools have been using a range of ways to make sure social connectedness is still occurring through such routes as video calls, virtual team building, working groups, wellbeing updates, and professional development sessions.

Concerns for the wellbeing of students, staff, and the wider school community will continue for an extended period.  There may be a need for schools to support those who have felt particularly isolated and lonely, those who may have financial worries, those who will have medical concerns and a new fear of becoming ill, those who are mourning the death of a loved one whose funeral they are unable to attend, and those who have missed a significant family event such as a postponed wedding, a deferred graduation ceremony, or other major events.

For an extended period, there will still be limited opportunities to mix and socialise and this too will have an impact on people’s wellbeing. Children will continue to be isolated as restrictions remain. So much of the non-academic enriching curriculum, such as school productions and sports competitions which are at the centre of developing ‘the whole child’, may be missing for a time as some restrictions remain in place. Some parents are asking for a narrower focus on the academic curriculum when schools reopen.

 Staffing challenges

Not all expatriate teachers made it back to China before the country closed its borders to foreigners. International schools will be looking at how they use these teachers who are stuck abroad. Some might be required to deliver online lessons which, depending on their home base, could occur in the middle of the night.

There may well be a fall in the supply of international teachers worldwide. Teachers may be less willing to live so far from their home country and family having experienced an extended period in which borders have been closed. However, as the coronavirus is now a global pandemic, there is a view that China may be well positioned to realise a faster recovery than many other regions in the world. Expatriate teachers may take reassurance from how well China has been able to contain the spread of the virus.

One pressing issue for many international schools is how to support their new teachers who are due to start in August; providing the reassurance and support that they need. Some of the challenges that they are grappling with include whether teachers will be able to travel to China this summer, whether they will be able to get work visas in time to start teaching in August, and whether self-isolation or quarantine will be required if and when they arrive into China.

Longer-term impact: shrink . . . . or grow?

There is likely to be a large and, possibly, permanent impact on the economy, and many schools are likening the coronavirus to the financial crash of 2008. That crisis saw a significant reduction in demand for student places for some schools in the year following the crash. Some school leaders are questioning how many families will still be able to afford premium international and private school fees. However, as a result of the coronavirus, some Chinese families may be more cautious about sending their child to an overseas boarding school, preferring to keep their child with them in China, sending them to their local international or private school instead. The scale of the demand from these returning pupils could greatly outweigh the numbers lost through economic contraction, so the international school market in China may grow.

Online capacity to continue

There is no doubt that most schools will be giving serious consideration to their education continuity plans for the future. Many schools are already exploring the online platforms that work best for them, and developing systems, structures, and practices to ensure that all members of their school community are well placed should there be any form of disruption to learning in the future.

International schools have been perceived as being relatively successful in delivering well-structured online learning during the shutdown. They may be increasingly seen by parents as a dependable education solution, even through the huge challenges of a global crisis. But for now, it is too early to tell how the implications of the coronavirus will impact the demand for enrolment of students next academic year.

ISC Research will be closely tracking this impact and the future prospects for international and bilingual schools. More information related to the impact of coronavirus, and market reports supporting international schools and education organisations through new challenges caused by the global pandemic, are available at


Stephanie Quayle is an East Asia consultant and field-based researcher for ISC Research.






Feature Image: by Pexels from Pixabay

Support Images: Gerd Altmann & Pintera Studio from Pixabay