A Momentous And Wary Back-To-School Around The World

Students arriving for their first day of school in Belgium.
Students arriving for their first day of school in Belgium.
Rozena Crossman

It's just one of many images of schoolchildren circulating around the world this week, but it comes with extra symbolism: 1.4 million students returned to their classes today in Wuhan, the central Chinese city where COVID-19 originated last last year. Eventually, nearly one billion children around the world — and their parents — faced months out of school, some adjusting to online classes, others simply shut out from learning.

Now, with this very special back-to-school season fully underway in many parts of the world, it's a moment of truth for many countries, as managing schools has become one of the biggest indicators of how well governments are handling the epidemic.

According to the OECD, the seismic shifts in educational systems may forever change how we teach, as many saw the possibilities of online classes and homeschooling. Yet concern runs deep that months of interrupted education (and months more that may come) could affect the future of an entire global generation. Key now is how to keep schools open and keep the virus from spreading. From masks at recess to having the scholastic year completely canceled, here is a look at how eight different countries are trying to teach again amid an unprecedented global pandemic.


In France, all students are expected to return to class beginning this week. In the heart of summer, the Ministry of Education had lightened the health protocol for schools and universities colleges, but revised these rules on Aug. 27 due to a surge of new infections in the country.

Wearing a mask will be compulsory for teachers, staff and students as young as 11 years old.

Physical distancing in closed spaces (classrooms, workshops, libraries, dining rooms, canteens, boarding schools, etc.) will no longer be compulsory.

• In case the epidemic worsens, the government has planned an adapted health protocol that it will only disclose if necessary. Depending on the situation in a given region, officials can move to temporarily close classes or establishments.

• Several teacher's unions have denounced a lack of preparation and many are worried that the protocol in place is too light.


A student cleans their hands with disinfectant gel on the first day of school in Belgium—Photo: Laurie Dieffembacq


Italian schools are set to reopen on Sept. 14. Rai, the state broadcaster, reports that everyone will have to wear a mask, pupils will take turns eating in the canteen and 2.5 million new desks will arrive in classrooms by the end of October. Yet some are sounding the alarm that things might not go too well.

• Students will be seated one meter from one another, meaning that fewer will fit in each classroom and authorities are scrambling to find additional spaces, including in theaters, cinemas and hotels. According to La Stampa, the National Association of Principals said the country needs to prepare an additional 20,000 classrooms before then — half of which have not yet been found.

• The Italian government is also hiring an additional 50,000 teachers and staggering the start times of classes to avoid overcrowding in buildings on public transport.

• "Scientifically we must never compromise on social distancing," says Walter Ricciardi, an advisor to the Italian Health Minister and a professor of Public Health at the Catholic University of Rome. "Everything that breaks these rules is destined to make the infection gain ground." ... "Schools need very strict protocols that follow the approach of the most successful countries, like Denmark and China, and not of the less successful ones, like France and Israel."


Denmark was the first country in Europe to reopen its primary schools in mid-April after containing the virus early on, with only 620 deaths to date. The Nordic country's successful strategy of split classes, outdoor lessons, and strict rules for hand-washing and distancing has become the model as other schools around Europe continue to open up.

• As of June 22, university students have also been welcomed back to campus and fall classes resumed in August. At the same, a mixed "online-offline" teaching model has been applied and so far, the reopenings have not caused any notable spread of the virus on the majority of campuses.

• One exception, Danish daily Midtjyllands Avis reports, is Silkeborg Højskole located in the middle of the Jutland peninsula, where every fourth student has tested positive. All the remaining students were sent home and will have to get tested before returning to class.


Amid the country's recent virus surge, particularly in Seoul, schools in the capital and its surrounding areas (the provinces Incheon and Gyeonggi) have returned to online classes until at least Sept. 11, NewsTouch reports. Only high school seniors preparing for the national university entrance exam set in December are exempted from this policy. Elsewhere in South Korea, schools still offer a hybrid form of schooling with in-person attendance capped between one-third and two-third of the students, depending on age group.


Students wear masks on their first day of class in Pyongyang, North Korea—Photo: Yonhap News


Schools reopened in June, keeping a hybrid system allowing pupils to continue classes online and aiming at a progressive return to face-to-face education, especially in light of the lack of computers and internet connections among poorer families. Currently, 70% of students are attending in person. The government had been tackling inequalities in access to tech long before the pandemic through the Plan Ceibal, which provides a computer to any student and teacher. Yet social imbalances have continued in the digital realm, Telam reports, as the same demographic that tended to drop out of school pre-COVID now log in less frequently to their virtual classes and complete less online homework.


In-person classes have been suspended, almost everywhere, since March 16. Reopening schools has divided politics and provinces, especially this past week when the city of Buenos Aires presented a plan to reopen 634 schools on Aug. 31 to serve as digital space for students who do not have computers or Internet connection. According to La Nación, the plan was deemed incomplete and rejected by the National Ministry of Education, who argued the city's sanitary conditions were not fit for students and teachers to go back to schools. However, in the northwestern province of Catamarca, some 15,000 students from kindergarten to college returned to schools on Aug. 19 for face-to-face classes in rural establishments. Attendance is voluntary and presence limited to three hours, infobae reports.


After schools were initially reopened on June 8, President Cyril Ramaphosa announced another closure on July 27 following an acceleration in confirmed COVID-19 cases. South Africa is the hardest-hit country on the continent, with more than 13,000 deaths to date.

• As schools opened again in mid-August and millions of children returned to the classroom, teachers unions have expressed concerns over overcrowded schools, water supply shortages and a lack of support for students who have lost family members or loved ones, Anadolu Agency reports.

• According to the Daily Maverick, South Africa also faces a potential shortage of teaching staff. Educators in the public schooling system can apply to work from home if they have comorbidities or are aged 64 years and above. Statistics from the Department of Basic Education shows 27,000 applications have already been submitted, 22,000 of which have been approved so far.

• Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga has also asked PMs to not make political statements which might deter pupils from going to school as truancy has been on the rise since the openings. Motshekga also raised concerns over the destruction of public property, with 2,278 schools vandalised during the lockdown.


Back in July, the Education Cabinet Secretary announced that the 2020 academic year would be "considered lost" due to Covid-19 restrictions. It was officially cancelled and all students will have to repeat it. With no plan to reopen schools before January 2021, but no clear schedule either, the Ministry has been under growing pressure from angry parents accusing Secretary Prof George Magoha of depriving children of their right to education. On August 21, Kenya, as well as other African countries, was urged by World Health Organization urged to reopen schools as keeping students home exposed them to malnutrition and sexual violence. In the meantime, the Nairobi-based Nation reports some empty schools have been turned into rental houses and even farms by their directors to insure some kind of income.

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food / travel

The True Horrors Behind 7 Haunted Locations Around The World

With Halloween arriving, we have dug up the would-be ghosts of documented evil and bloodshed from the past.

Inside Poveglia Island's abandoned asylum

Laure Gautherin and Carl-Johan Karlsson

When Hallows Eve was first introduced as a Celtic festival some 2,000 years ago, bonfires and costumes were seen as a legitimate way to ward off ghosts and evil spirits. Today of course, with science and logic being real ghostbusters, spine-chilling tales of haunted forests, abandoned asylums and deserted graveyards have rather become a way to add some mystery and suspense to our lives.

And yet there are still spooky places around the world that have something more than legend attached to them. From Spain to Uzbekistan and Australia, these locations prove that haunting lore is sometimes rooted in very real, and often terrible events.

Shahr-e Gholghola, City of Screams - Afghanistan

photo of  ruins of Shahr-e Gholghola,

The ruins of Shahr-e Gholghola, the City of Screams, in Afghanistan

Dai He/Xinhua via ZUMA Wire

According to locals, ghosts from this ancient royal citadel located in the Valley of Bamyan, 150 miles northwest of Kabul, have been screaming for 800 years. You can hear them from miles away, at twilight, when they relive their massacre.

In the spring 1221, the fortress built by Buddhist Ghorids in the 6th century became the theater of the final battle between Jalal ad-Din Mingburnu, last ruler of the Khwarezmian Empire, and the Mongol Horde led by Genghis Khan. It is said that Khan's beloved grandson, Mutakhan, had been killed on his mission to sack Bamyan. To avenge him, the Mongol leader went himself and ordered to kill every living creature in the city, children included.

The ruins today bear the name of Shahr-e Gholghola, meaning City of Screams or City of Sorrows. The archeological site, rich in Afghan history, is open to the public and though its remaining walls stay quiet during the day, locals say that the night brings the echoes of fear and agony. Others claim the place comes back to life eight centuries ago, and one can hear the bustle of the city and people calling each other.

Gettysburg, Civil War battlefield - U.S.

photo of rocks and trees in Gettysburg

View of the battlefields from Little Round Top, Gettysburg, PA, USA


Even ghosts non-believers agree there is something eerie about Gettysbury. The city in the state of Pennsylvania is now one of the most popular destinations in the U.S. for spirits and paranormal activities sight-seeing; and many visitors report they witness exactly what they came for: sounds of drums and gunshots, spooky encounters and camera malfunctions in one specific spot… just to name a few!

The Battle of Gettysburg, for which President Abraham Lincoln wrote his best known public address, is considered a turning point in the Civil War that led to the Union's victory. It lasted three days, from July 1st to July 3rd, 1863, but it accounts for the worst casualties of the entire conflict, with 23,000 on the Union side (3,100 men killed) and 28,000 for the Confederates (including 3,900 deaths). Thousands of soldiers were buried on the battlefield in mass graves - without proper rites, legend says - before being relocated to the National Military Park Cemetery for the Unionists.

Since then, legend has it, their restless souls wander, unaware the war has ended. You can find them everywhere, on the battlefield or in the town's preserved Inns and hotels turned into field hospitals back then.

Belchite, Civil War massacre - Spain

photo of sunset of old Belchite

Old Belchite, Spain

Belchite Town Council

Shy lost souls wandering and briefly appearing in front of visitors, unexplainable forces attracting some to specific places of the town, recorded noises of planes, gunshots and bombs, like forever echoes of a drama which left an open wound in Spanish history…

That wound, still unhealed, is the Spanish Civil War; and at its height in 1937, Belchite village, located in the Zaragoza Province in the northeast of Spain, represented a strategic objective of the Republican forces to take over the nearby capital city of Zaragoza.

Instead of being a simple step in their operation, it became the field of an intense battle opposing the loyalist army and that of General Francisco Franco's. Between August 24 and September 6, more than 5,000 people were killed, including half of Belchite's population. The town was left in rubble. As a way to illustrate the Republicans' violence, Franco decided to leave the old town in ruins and build a new Belchite nearby. All the survivors were relocated there, but they had to wait 15 years for it to be complete.

If nothing particular happens in new Belchite, home to around 1,500 residents, the remains of old Belchite offer their share of chilling ghost stories. Some visitors say they felt a presence, someone watching them, sudden change of temperatures and strange sounds. The ruins of the old village have been used as a film set for Terry Gilliam's The Adventures of Baron Munchausen - with the crew reporting the apparition of two women dressed in period costumes - and Guillermo del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth. And in October 1986, members of the television program "Cuarta Dimensión" (the 4th dimension) spent a night in Belchite and came back with some spooky recordings of war sounds.

Gur Emir, a conquerer’s mausoleum - Uzbekistan

photo of Gur Emir (Tomb of Timur) i

Gur Emir (Tomb of Timur) in Samarkand, Uzbekistan

Chris Bradley/Design Pics via ZUMA Wire

The news echoed through the streets and bazaars of Samarkand: "The Russian expedition will open the tomb of Tamerlane the Great. It will be our curse!" It was June 1941, and a small team of Soviet researchers began excavations in the Gur-Emir mausoleum in southeastern Uzbekistan.

The aim was to prove that the remains in the tomb did in fact belong to Tamerlane — the infamous 14th-century conqueror and first ruler of the Timurid dynasty who some historians say massacred 1% of the world's population in 1360.

Still, on June 20, despite protests from local residents and Muslim clergy, Tamerlame's tomb was cracked open — marked with the inscription: "When I Rise From the Dead, The World Shall Tremble."

Only two days later, Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union, with the people of Samarkand linking it to the disturbing of Tamerlane's peace. Amid local protests, the excavation was immediately wrapped up and the remains of the Turkish/Mongol conqueror were sent to Moscow. The turning point in the war came with the victory in the Battle of Stalingrad — only a month after a superstitious Stalin ordered the return of Tamerlane's remains to Samarkand where the former emperor was re-buried with full honors.

Gamla Stan, a royal massacre - Sweden

a photo of The red house of Gamla Stan, Stockholm, Sweden

The red house of Gamla Stan, Stockholm, Sweden


After Danish King Kristian II successfully invaded Sweden and was anointed King in November 1520, the new ruler called Swedish leaders to join for festivities at the royal palace in Stockholm. At dusk, after three days of wine, beer and spectacles, Danish soldiers carrying lanterns and torches entered the great hall and imprisoned the gathered nobles who were considered potential opponents of the Danish king. In the days that followed, 92 people were swiftly sentenced to death, and either hanged or beheaded on Stortorget, the main square in Gamla Stan (Old Town).

Until this day, the Stockholm Bloodbath is considered one of the most brutal events in Scandinavian history, and some people have reported visions of blood flowing across the cobblestoned square in early November. A little over a century later, a red house on the square was rebuilt as a monument for the executed — fitted with 92 white stones for each slain man. Legend has it that should one of the stones be removed, the ghost of the represented will rise from the dead and haunt the streets of Stockholm for all eternity.

Port Arthur, gruesome prison - Australia

a photo of ort Arthur Prison Settlement, Tasmania, Australia

Port Arthur Prison Settlement, Tasmania, Australia

Flickr/Eli Duke

During its 47-year history as a penal settlement, Port Arthur in southern Tasmania earned a reputation as one of the most notorious prisons in the British Empire. The institution — known for a brutal slavery system and punishment of the most hardened criminals sent from the motherland— claimed the lives of more than 1,000 inmates until its closure in 1877.

Since then, documented stories have spanned the paranormal gamut: poltergeist prisoners terrorizing visitors, weeping children roaming the port and tourists running into a weeping 'lady in blue' (apparently the spirit of a woman who died in childbirth). The museum even has an 'incidence form' ready for anyone wanting to report an otherworldly event.

Poveglia Island, plague victims - Italy

a photo of Poveglia Island, Italy

Poveglia Island, Italy

Mirco Toniolo/ROPI via ZUMA Press

Located off the coast of Venice and Lido, Poveglia sadly reunites all the classical elements of a horror movie: plagues, mass burial ground and mental institute (from the 1920's).

During the bubonic plague and other subsequent pandemics, the island served as a quarantine station for the sick and anyone showing any signs of what could be Black Death contamination. Some 160,000 victims are thought to have died there and the seven acres of land became a mass burial ground so full that it is said that human ash makes up more than 50% of Poveglia's soil.

In 1922 a retirement home for the elderly — used as a clandestine mental institution— opened on the island and with it a fair amount of rumors involving torture of patients. The hospital and consequently the whole island was closed in 1968, leaving all the dead trapped off-land.

Poveglia's terrifying past earned it the nickname of 'Island of Ghosts'. Despite being strictly off-limits to visitors, the site has been attracting paranormal activity hunters looking for the apparition of lost and angry souls. The island would be so evil that some locals say that when an evil person dies, he wakes up in Poveglia, another kind of hell.

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