The COVID-19 pandemic has interrupted kids’ education in every country on earth. Now, many children are preparing for what will be their first day back to school in quite some time. Others are planning to continue their education online or in other ways at home. In the middle of the uncertainty, one thing is for sure: A lot of kids have school on the brain right now, complete with first-day jitters, excitement and, of course, their favorite back-to-school traditions.
In the United States, children and their parents usually honor the occasion with a fresh new outfit and lots of first-day photos. Other countries have their own unique ways to celebrate. Read on to learn about five fascinating back-to-school traditions around the world and see how kids are feeling about the year ahead.
Sponsored children in Sierra Leone receive notes of encouragement from their sponsors at back-to-school time.
In India, children going back to school get special gifts on their first day, which is also known as praveshanotshavan (“Admission Day”). Because the Indian school calendar typically begins at the beginning of monsoon season in May or June, umbrellas make popular back-to-school gifts.
In Kerala, India, children show off the umbrellas and backpacks they received from ChildFund.
Of course, going back to school in person is not an option for many children in India right now. Saloni, 19, was in her final year of secondary school when the pandemic shuttered classrooms. Learning was available online, but she didn’t have a smartphone.
“I felt sad and worried,” Saloni says. “I worried that I would not be able to catch up with the classes. I prayed for a smartphone. I knew my parents would not be able to afford it immediately, so whenever possible, I used to borrow a phone from my neighbor.”
Thankfully, Saloni’s parents used some vegetable seeds they had received from ChildFund to start a garden and begin selling vegetables. From the extra income, they were able to buy a smartphone for Saloni to continue her education virtually, and she is now studying to pass her final exams.
Saloni and her mother. “I am comfortable studying on the phone, but the classroom was better,” Saloni says. “[Only] rarely am I able to clarify my doubts. … I miss my friends and the classroom, the games me and my friends used to play at recess, and sharing lunch together.”
Kids in Kenya go to school year-round, with the school year broken up into three trimesters separated by monthlong breaks. When school is in session, many children – boys and girls – shave their heads in accordance with school policies, since long hair is often viewed as a distraction from their education. Now, however, this attitude is changing.
Kenyan schools cautiously reopened in January 2021 after being closed for nearly a year due to the pandemic. For now, children like Janet, 10, are enjoying the return to in-classroom learning.
Janet, a sponsored child in ChildFund programs, pauses for a photo during her walk to school in Emali, Kenya.
In Indonesia, children normally enjoy a back-to-school tradition much like a student orientation. Every year, all the students are divided into small groups on the first day of school. They play games and work on activities together that help them get to know their new classrooms and make friends.
Things are a bit different now that Indonesia has become a new epicenter for COVID-19. Children like Elisabet, 14, are studying at home with help from their parents and ChildFund.
Elisabet and her mom study together in Indonesia. Before the pandemic started, Elisabet’s mom participated in a ChildFund parenting class that shared the importance of positive discipline. It has helped mother and daughter develop a healthier relationship during the lockdown.
Children in Brazil typically go to school from February to December, with a holiday break in July – and everyone gets excited for back-to-school time, although it is notoriously expensive. Basic supplies can be marked up to around five times more than their usual price in the months before school starts! For this reason, some parents stock up on school supplies as early as six months in advance.
This year, as Brazil continues to be a COVID-19 hotspot and schools remain closed, children have relied increasingly on alternative forms of social connection to fuel their hopes and dreams for the future. For sponsored children, this includes their sponsors.
It’s been a tough year for Ana Kelly, 16, in particular. On top of the pandemic, she was recently diagnosed with a health condition. She says the support from her sponsor has given her strength to push forward.
Ana Kelly shares the many letters she has received from her sponsor, Larry in the U.S., over the years. “When he said that he wanted to help and support me during my health problem, I couldn't hold up and started crying and thought, ‘How [can] someone who doesn’t know me in person have such a great love for me?’ Because sometimes, even family members don't care as much as he cares about me.”
In Vietnam, the first day of school, September 5, is a national celebration. The practice began in 1945, when President Ho Chi Minh sent a letter to students celebrating Vietnam’s first school year as an independent country. Today, September 5 is celebrated annually with colorful ceremonies, complete with artistic performances by students and teachers.
Vietnam’s COVID-19 response has been one of the most effective in the world, and children there have been attending school in person since May 2020. A recent resurgence in cases, however, has caused a new stay-at-home order to take effect, which may affect the upcoming school year.
Duyen, 8 (far right), and her friends celebrate being back at school after ChildFund renovated their classrooms and playground in Vietnam.
Even in tough times like these, back to school is a special occasion for kids around the world – and it’s an excellent time to sponsor a child. Now more than ever, kids crave the voices of those who will remind them how important education is, encourage them to stay in school and help them reach for their dreams. With a little extra support, they can look forward to many more first-day-of-school celebrations to come.