From vaccine mandates to a chatting ban: how schools in the Asia Pacific are managing Delta

As countries across Asia battle worsening Covid outbreaks, schools face particular challenges in keeping children and teachers safe. Some countries – determined that classrooms stay open – are relying on measures like masks, smaller groups and even bans on talking in class to limit infections. In others, schools remain shut.

Here’s a look at what countries around Asia and the region are doing to prevent Covid spread in schools:

China – vaccines, testing and restrictions

China’s Delta outbreak began in late July, when schools were out for the summer. With increased travel, the infections spread and the situation spiralled into the worst outbreak the country had seen since 2020. Starting in Nanjing, Delta soon appeared in more than half of China’s 31 provinces and dozens of cities including the capital, Beijing.

A huge push to stop the spread – including testing tens of millions of residents and localised lockdowns – has, for now at least, worked.

That means many schools reopened in September, albeit with some restrictions. In Nanjing, junior high and elementary schools in high-risk areas will delay the start of term by two weeks. Schools in Beijing, Shanghai and Sichuan are due to reopen as normal in this month, state media reports, but there may be some restrictions.

High school students in Nanjing wait in line to register for a Covid vaccination. Photograph: China Daily/Reuters

In low-risk areas of Beijing, teachers and students are required to have a negative test and a green code on their health pass app to return. All non-essential summer conferences, activities, camps, and student military training have been cancelled or moved online. In Shenzhen, students will be back at school, but with mandatory temperature checks, mask wearing, social distancing, and handwashing measures in place.

China is also vaccinating children. Last month, the ministry of education urged local authorities to promote student vaccinations after several provinces opened vaccine eligibility to children aged three to 17. Some areas, like Guangxi province, now require students to be vaccinated. Others go further, saying entire families must be vaccinated in order for children to return to school.

Japan – schools should try to remain open

Japan is battling a fifth wave of infections, driven almost entirely by the Delta variant, with a sharp rise in cases among young people.

The latest wave has seen cases in the under-20s jump from a weekly average of about 3,500 cases in mid-July to more than 22,000 a month later. Though Pfizer and Moderna vaccines have been approved for 12- to 15-year-olds, the rollout has been slow, as was the case for adults.

Against that backdrop, schools across the country are using a variety of methods to limit Covid spread.

It’s up to individual municipalities to set term dates, as well as decide on whether to delay reopening after the summer break and impose anti-infection measures. Some local governments have extended holidays, while others will split students into morning and afternoon classes.

Koronon, a Japanese anti-coronavirus cat mascot poses for a photo with a group of schoolgirls wearing facemasks in Ikebukuro, Tokyo. Photograph: Stanislav Kogiku/SOPA Images/REX/Shutterstock

Last month the education ministry issued guidelines calling on schools to cancel lessons for up to seven days if multiple infections were confirmed in a single class.

But the message from the top is aim to keep schools open.

“We, as the central government, won’t call for blanket closures as we hope for flexible decisions in line with regional circumstances,” education minister Koichi Hagiuda said last month.

Take the cities of Yokohama and Kawasaki, just south of Tokyo: the start of term has been delayed by several days to 3 September. For the first week, classes will be held in the morning only. School sports clubs and other activities have been suspended.

Testing will be increased in schools across Japan. The government will distribute 800,000 antigen test kits for students and staff in kindergartens and schools from September.

South Korea – benefits of school outweigh risks

Cases have surged in recent weeks but authorities have determined the benefits associated with in-person classes outweigh Covid risks for children.

South Korea will ease social distancing guidelines for in-school learning, even in regions where cases are highest such as Seoul and neighbouring Gyeonggi province.

As of August, just over half of the roughly 6 million schoolchildren had returned to classrooms after the summer break. The plan is to have all students back by 6 September, provided Covid prevention measures are at level 3, the second-highest level of restrictions.

Schools have strict procedures to follow: temperature checks, satisfactory ventilation, sanitisation protocols and minimum one-metre distance between people. Masks must be worn at all times, except during meals which must be consumed in silence.

By early September, all teachers should have been fully vaccinated. High school seniors will have also received their two shots, ahead of the most important exam of their lives: the national college entrance exam slated for 18 November. The country is aiming to vaccinate 12- to 17-year-olds later in the year.

Indonesia – distance learning outside Jakarta

Many provinces in Indonesia are sticking entirely to distance learning as local virus cases remain high, though schools in some parts will soon welcome students again.

In Jakarta, where infections have fallen, 610 schools were ready to open on Monday – almost 18 months since they were first ordered to close.

Various safety precautions will be in place. Schools will only operate at 50% capacity, with half of the students remaining at home and studying online. Chatting in class is forbidden, face masks must be worn at all times, and students must bring in their own food, because canteens are shut. Teachers must be vaccinated.

Jakarta also has one of the highest rates of vaccination in the country. More than 90% of children aged 12- to 18 there, and 85% of educators, have been fully vaccinated.

Face-to-face schooling has started in Jakarta, Indonesia, with strict health protocols. Photograph: Donal Husni/NurPhoto/REX/Shutterstock

For many teachers in the capital, it’s a relief to return to the classroom. “Mostly the teachers feel that distance learning is very, very boring,” said Satriwan Salim Wasakjen, teacher and national coordinator of association for education . But he added there are still concerns about safety.

Indonesia has one of the highest Covid fatality rates among children, according to the country’s paediatric society. More than 1,200 children – half under one-year-old – have died after becoming infected with Covid-19.

The high death rate among children is driven by a range of factors, health experts say – from nutrition and co-morbidities, to difficulties in getting children to follow health measures such as wearing a mask, and the misconception that young people are not vulnerable.

India – a return to school after 18 months

Since the pandemic hit and India went into its first lockdown in March 2020, close to 250 million Indian children have not been back to school for almost 18 months. Schools across the country implemented online lessons, but for the millions of those living in poverty or rural areas, without access to phones or computers, there was no possibility of digital learning. In some Indian states, schools began re-opening at the beginning of 2021, but swiftly closed again in April when the devastating second wave hit, driven by the Delta variant.

But since the end of July, schools in states such as Gujarat, Bihar, Uttarakhand Madhya Pradesh and Bihar, have begun gradually reopening. Delhi, which bore the brunt of the Covid second wave, has announced schools will open from September. Vaccination for children aged 12 and above is expected to begin in October.

A student arrives to attend classes at a school at a school in Chennai after the state government relaxed restrictions for schools Photograph: Arun Sankar/AFP/Getty Images

Australia – schools closed in outbreak hotspots

It’s a mixed bag for students across Australia as the country battles a series of regional outbreaks. Schools will remain shut until late October in New South Wales – the most populous state – as it wrestles with surging cases. Parents there have already been home schooling children for months. Schools are closed in other parts of the country fighting outbreaks, while classrooms are open in places with low case numbers. The discussion is now moving toward what measures are needed to reopen schools – such as rules around ventilation or mask wearing – as the Delta variant infects growing numbers of children, who are currently not eligible for vaccines.

Fiji – remote learning in remote areas

The spread of the Delta variant in Fiji has forced schools to move to online learning. That’s raised some specific challenges for teachers and students in parts of the main island, Viti Levu: some have to trek through terrain inaccessible by vehicles to deliverworksheets, while others climb hills to get better internet reception.

Among them is high-school teacher Atunaisa Waqaicelua. His journey to reach his students includes a 35-minute walk uphill, crossing the Wainimala River three times, and jumping over slippery stones and rocks to get to the village.

“The geographical location of these rural and remote schools is the biggest challenge. It means very minimal to no access to the internet or technology they need for online classes or learning,” says Mr Waqaicelua, who teaches in Nanoko Village on Viti Levu.

Children playing the river in Fiji Photograph: Viniana Vuibau/The Guardian

Other teachers have had to walk at least four hours and cross the Wainimala River 10 times to get to their district school located farther inland. This often means staying overnight in the village before heading back.

So far four known Covid-19 deaths have been recorded among children in Fiji.

Helen Davidson and Chi Hui Lin in Taipei, Gavin Blair in Japan, Raphael Rashid in South Korea, Rebecca Ratcliffe in Indonesia, Hannah Ellis-Petersen in India, Virginia Harrison in Australia and Geraldine Panapasa in Fiji.