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How Denmark got its children back to school so soon after lockdown

Denmark was the first country in Europe to reopen day care and primary schools after the strict coronavirus lockdown. Emma Firth takes a look at how Denmark did it and what lessons there are for other countries.

How Denmark got its children back to school so soon after lockdown
Children wave Danish flags as Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen visits Stolpedal school in Aalborg, eastern Denmark on May 18, 2020. AFP

‘Tak for i dag’, says the nursery teacher (pædagog) as I collect my two and four year old daughters from day care. This is a well-used phrase in Denmark to say thanks for the day and you’ll often hear it echoing around schools and nurseries, as parents pick up their children. But it’s quieter now.

I stand at the side door of the kindergarten (børnehave) and wait for my daughter to be brought out to me. I can’t step inside the building. Another parent waits behind me, at a marked distance.

Collecting my two year-old is slightly different, as parents can go inside the nursery (vuggestue), but not inside the room the children play in. At kindergarten, my four year-old can’t hug or hold hands with her friends but adults can comfort them with cuddles whenever needed.

With our hands thoroughly washed, I put both girls in the cargo bike and cycle home. As the spring sun shines down on Copenhagen, I cycle past bustling cafes and shops; bike traffic is the same as usual; mask sightings are rare. Life almost feels back to normal. Except it’s not.

As soon as we arrive home, I change my daughters out of their clothes. We wash our hands, again. It’s a familiar routine for many parents across Denmark, since the reopening of schools and day care institutions six weeks ago. And it’s a routine that’s being watched across the world.

Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen (R) speaks with pupils as she participates in the reopening of Lykkebo School in Valby in Copenhagen on April 15, 2020. AFP

On April 15th, Denmark became the first country in Europe to reopen primary schools, nurseries and kindergartens after five weeks of lockdown caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

Unlike in other countries like France it was compulsory in Denmark for parents to send their children back unless they had a doctors note or a sympathetic school leader.

The quick, decisive and extensive lockdown announced by Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen on March 11th, before any deaths from the coronavirus had occurred, garnered huge support.

In fact Mette Frederiksen said it was the first time in her political career that she had witnessed such unanimous agreement in parliament. It meant new laws were passed at lightning speed.

The country followed the rules of ‘væsk hænder, nys i ærmet og hold afstand’ -‘ wash hands, sneeze into your sleeve and keep a distance.’ Within a month, the infection rate flattened so much, that reopening plans had begun.

The speed of it all took the country by surprise. With advice from Denmark’s infectious diseases agency Statens Serum Institute, the government announced that the youngest children would re-enter society first.

SSI’s scientific model showed that children were the least susceptible to the coronavirus and the government wanted parents to work more effectively from home. The infection rate was at 0.6 with 433 coronavirus patients in Danish hospitals.

The united political front seen during lockdown began to crack as politicians, teachers, parents and business owners all had differing views. A parent group formed on Facebook, called 'Mit barn skal ikke være forsøgskanin for Covid19'- 'My child will not be a Covid19 guinea pig' and within days it had over 40 thousand members. Denmark’s world-renowned trust in authorities was being tested.

With just a week’s notice, teachers scrambled to implement the new health authority guidelines, in order to welcome pupils safely back. Extra funding was promised to each municipality, as part of on-going negotiations about what schools would need.

Stef Fleet, a primary school principal at the International School of Hellerup, says it was a challenging time.

“We built a hand wash station outside, installed extra sinks, converted taps from manual lift ones to automatic sensory ones, reallocated toilets so each class had their own bathroom facility and hired more cleaners to regularly wipe down all contact points like door handles,” he says.

New hygiene guidelines stated that children should wash their hands at least every two hours. Surfaces also needed to be cleaned twice a day.

Inside the school, classrooms were divided so that desks could be at the recommended two-metre distance. Teaching timetables were changed, to keep to small groups and a lot of focus was put on outside play and learning. The playground was marked into sections, to keep pupils in the same, small groups. Toys were put away, if they couldn’t be easily cleaned.

Guidelines for day care institutions were similar; even babies had to be seated two metres apart when at a table. The recommended floor space per child was also doubled, which meant many institutions could only accept half the children back, while they tried to find other buildings and outdoor space. Some schools even used tents as temporary classrooms in parks and playgrounds.

When the day of reopening came on April 15th, a mixture of excited and anxious parents turned up at the school, nursery and kindergarten gates. They waved their Danish flags (Dannebrog) and hugged their children goodbye for the first time in two months.

“I really wasn’t keen on sending my children back at first but three days before reopening, we got a big document from our school, explaining all the new guidelines and I thought, let’s try it,” mother of two, Virginie says.

“The kids don’t talk about it. They just take the good and positive from it – seeing their friends, playing, they’re just happy to have a routine and we’re happy as well,” she says.

Claire Astley is a teacher at a school in Vester Skernige, on Fyn. She thinks the new school set up has had a positive impact on pupils.

“The shorter school day, which is from 0800-1300, the emphasis on outside projects and smaller class groups has actually improved behaviour.

“The morning is spent doing maths or science, where we include children who are still at home, via Zoom. Then we’ll go outside and do activities like digging in the school garden, getting tadpoles from the lake or going on bike tours to the forest or beach. We don’t tell the children off if they get too close to each other. We let them be kids,” Claire says.

As parents started to see the new set up working, and the infection rate remain stable, attendance levels increased. Some parents were initially confused about the Danish Health Authority’s guidelines for school attendance. The authority later clarified that for parents to be able to keep children at home, they needed a doctor’s note and to get permission from their school leader.

Figures from the Department of Children and Education (Børne og Undervisningsministeriet) show that for the first week of April 15th, which included three days of reopening, 50.7% of pupils returned to primary school and 26% returned to day care. By the third week, 90.1% of pupils attended primary school and 66% attended day care.

It's a contrast to France, where two weeks after schools reopened on May 11th the number of pupils attending was around 25 percent, with many parents reluctant to send their children back.

On May 18th, pupils in Denmark aged 12-16 returned to secondary school. The guidelines were updated but were not as definitive, leaving a lot to school interpretation. School leaders were however encouraged to call the Ministry of Education helpline for advice.

Pupils of the Norrebro Park primary school dance to warm up outside in a nearby park in Copenhagen, Denmark on April 29, 2020. AFP

“There are so many new rules, from hand washing, to the children’s different breaks times, where we should be with the class. It’s quite hard to figure out what we should do,” one teacher in Copenhagen says.

Her principal receives texts and emails every evening about new procedures to update, which she says is very stressful.

The main difference in the guidelines is that social distancing has been reduced from two metres to one metre. This means there is space for all pupils to return to both school and daycare, although some schools are offering split days and a mix of online teaching to avoid overcrowding.

This has caused further concern for some parents. Pernille from Aarhus sent her 13 year-old son back to school last week because she wanted him to socialise again.

“I am still very worried by the one-metre distancing and there isn’t enough hand sanitiser. I am at risk so it also means I can’t hug my son anymore,” she says.

When 15-year old Latharna returned to her school in Stenstrup, the excitement of seeing friends was met with the reality of the new situation.

“All the new rules are quite overwhelming and my hands are really dry from the hand washing,” she says.

“It’s weird not hugging friends. And if you do, it’s quite risky. One boy in my class has a mother who is quite sick and we’ve been told we really have to keep a special distance from him because the risk is too high. If his mother gets ill we’ll all feel so guilty,” she says.

Latharna’s new shorter school day involves a morning walk, outside activities, before a small amount of academic work inside.

The emphasis on children’s social needs is mirrored in other schools. “There is an increased focus on well being. We’re not putting the academic needs second but we’re thinking differently about it,” says primary school principal Stef Fleet.

At the International School of Hellerup, a well-being unit has been developed so all classes can focus on an activity related to this. The school is also monitoring the use of the school psychologist and counsellor. So far there hasn’t been a noticeable increase, although this could occur later, especially as older pupils are now returning.

High school pupils, aged 16-19 returned on Wednesday May 27th. Those in their last year of school will take their final exams, but fewer of them. For everyone else, exams are cancelled and end of year grades will be decided on teacher assessments.

“Longer-term it’s still unknown what happens next year with grades, exams and reading levels and how much has been lost. That’s something we’ll start planning for soon,” principal Stef Fleet says.

Teacher Marie Kaas-Larsen speaks with her pupils of the Norrebro Park primary school outside in a nearby park in Copenhagen, Denmark on April 29, 2020.AFP

Six weeks on from the first reopening of schools, Denmark’s coronavirus infection rate stands at 0.7. Many sectors of society, including cafes, restaurants, shops and museums have also reopened, although the country's borders remain restricted.

There are currently 112 patients in hospitals across Denmark with coronavirus – a figure that has dropped from 380 when primary schools and daycare reopened. 563 people have died so far with coronavirus in Denmark; a country with a population of around 5.6 million.

Christian Wejse, an epidemiologist at Aarhus University believes the school reopening “has proven to be very safe”.

“Children are not important drivers of this epidemic,” he says. “They are less infectious, do not have a lot of symptoms and are very rarely hospitalised.

“We’re not risking lives I think by opening up schools. We may risk some increased transmissions in the children’s families and teachers but really we’ve seen that very little in Denmark. We are now down to a very low number of infectious individuals in the country, I think it will just continue going downwards and die out completely.”

Many have credited Denmark’s societal trust and propensity to follow rules, for the success of reopening and reducing the spread of infection.

“In Denmark we were able to have some mutual understanding between teachers, employers and authorities that everyone needed to feel safe in opening the schools in a situation like this. There was respect for all the people involved,” says Dorte Lange, vice president of the Danish Association of Teachers.

She recognises that there is still a lot to do. There are parents who haven’t sent their children back to school and day care yet because of infection fears.

“Some students are lagging behind now so there needs to be a big effort to help them. It depends on what chances teachers will get to do this catching up. But we’ve learnt that pupils thrive better in smaller groups with more teacher contact and shorter days, so we hope we can continue some of this.”

Dorte Lange commends the teachers for their flexibility and recognises it has been tough for them. “They are looking forward to their summer holiday,” she says.

When teachers return for a new school year in August, the repair work will begin. The long-term effects of this unprecedented change to children’s lives, is still yet to be seen.

Confronting Coronavirus: This article is part of a new series of articles in which The Local's journalists across Europe are taking an in-depth look at the responses to different parts of the crisis in different countries; what's worked, what hasn't, and why.
 
This article has been supported by the Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit organisation dedicated to rigorous and compelling reporting about responses to social problems.
 
The SJN has given The Local a grant to explore how different countries are confronting the various affects of the coronavirus crisis and the successes and failures of each approach.
 
How Denmark got its children back to school so soon after lockdown by Emma Firth is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.
Based on a work at https://www.thelocal.dk/20200528/how-denmark-got-its-children-back-to-school.

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READER INSIGHTS

What schools do foreigners in Sweden send their children to and are they happy?

Most foreign parents in Sweden told The Local's survey they take advantage of the country's school choice system and send their children to international schools, or to private or non-profit free schools. Here's what they think of the quality of teaching.

What schools do foreigners in Sweden send their children to and are they happy?

Our survey was not scientific, but out of the 157 people who responded before we closed it, 65 (41 percent) sent their child or children to a standard municipally-run school which did not offer an international programme as part of their teaching. More than a third (34 percent) sent their child to an international school offering the International Baccalaureate diploma (which could be municipal, private, or non-profit).

Almost a quarter (39 respondents, 24.4 percent) sent their children to a profit-making free school. And almost a fifth (29 respondents, 18 percent) sent their child or children to a free school run by a non-profit organisation.

The survey was carried out as part of The Local’s investigation into schools in Sweden. We’ve previously published interviews with foreign teachers at the IES (Internationella Engelska Skolan, International English School) free school chain herehere, and here, and are now looking into other schools as well.

Since the “free school reform” in 1992, private and non-profit companies have been able to run schools in Sweden, with the state paying them for each pupil educated. 

The system has come under growing criticism over the past ten years.

This has partly been due to a decline in the performance of Swedish pupils compared to those of other countries in the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). The system of school choice has been blamed for increasing segregation. 

In the run-up to September’s election, schools are likely to be one of the big issues. 

Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson looks set to campaign on a pledge to ban free schools – dismissed as marknadsskolan, “schools driven by market forces” – from siphoning off profits. 

“The school system we have in Sweden today, which is unique in the world and no other country has chosen to imitate, is a system which essentially drives increased segregation,” she said in an interview in the Svenska Dagbladet newspaper at the end of last month. 

“Researchers are pretty much unanimous about that. Pupils with the worst prospects are collected together in one school and those with better prospects in another.”  

Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson of the centre-left Social Democrat party. Photo: Jonas Ekströmer/TT

Swedish schools too slow 

The most common complaint from parents who answered the survey was that the pace of education at municipality-run schools was too slow, and the level of academic demands placed on their children too low. 

“[It’s] very slow-paced,” complained a US mother living in Uppsala. [The] education is several years behind grade level in the US.” 

Mangla Sekhri, an Indian mother and IT director based in Stockholm, said she had pulled her children out of the local municipality school after a year and moved them to a school run by the IES chain.

“[I] just couldn’t continue due to [the] slow pace there. It was very slow, but now at IES things are much better-paced.” 

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“The only thing which bothers me is lower expectations on the kids, compared to Poland where we come from,” said a Polish respondent. 

“She’s ahead of the other children because she’d already finished two years of school in Guernsey. They don’t give her learning materials of a high enough level without us asking them to,” complained a father from the British Isles. 

Better integration at municipal schools 

For those who had chosen to send their children to a standard, municipality-run school, the big attraction was better integration, both in Sweden and in their local neighbourhood. 

“Their peers and friends at the school are generally their neighbours as well, [so it’s] easy to hang out with school friends,” said an American living on Sweden’s northwest coast, whose four children all went through the local municipal school. 

“My now eight-year-old daughter learned Swedish within months. One year on, she’s completely fluent. She has also made many Swedish friends and has playdates several days a week,” said a British father living in Gävle. 

“If you are an immigrant and planning to settle down in Sweden then municipal schools are good options for your child to learn Swedish quickly,” agreed a dad from Bangladesh, living in Malmö. 

More flexibility and better discipline at private schools

Many of those who had chosen to send their children to a privately-run free school seemed to prize the additional flexibility and better discipline they offered. 

“My child was already three years ahead academically and was very bored in lessons (had already learned everything in maths and science in the UK), so IES let him attend higher years group classes in these subjects,” reported an English respondent living in the middle of Sweden. 

“Free schools have stricter discipline and they focus more on studies,” said a mother from Sri Lanka whose child went to a school run by the Kunskapskolan chain. 

“I like the discipline and all the support that teachers give to the students,” said a mother whose child goes to a school run by IES. 

A parent whose child went to a school run by the AcadeMedia chain, said they were drawn by the additional subjects, such as music and theatre, on offer. 

Better possibilities to study internationally and move schools if posted elsewhere

Those who chose to send their children to schools running the International Baccalaureate programme did so either because they liked the programme’s more demanding curriculum or because they were only on a short or medium-term posting to Sweden and wanted to make it easier for their children to shift their education to a new country. 

One parent, whose child went to the British International School of Stockholm, cited the “ease of transferring to a new school when moving to a new country”, and “exposure to different cultures and points of view” as advantages. 

“I love the IB. It’s one of the best but also most challenging educational systems in the world and this is widely recognised,” said one parent, whose child goes to the international school run by the Bladins Foundation in Malmö.

“Here in Malmö, the big risk is that there are no options for the final years outside the one school. If your child doesn’t achieve the academic standard required, then you are screwed.” 

Who was happiest with their choice of school? 

There was little variation in parent satisfaction between those who sent their children to a municipal, private or international school. 

The parents who sent their children to standard municipal schools rated their school on average at 7.7 out of 10. Those who sent their children to a privately run free school rated their school at 8.2, while those who sent their children to a school run by a non-profit organisation rated their children’s school the highest at 8.6. 

Those whose children went to a school running the International Baccalaureate programme rated the school on average at 8.3. 

There was slightly more variation between types of schools when parents broke down their ratings, with standard municipal schools falling further behind on the level of discipline parents perceived at their children’s schools, and also on the quality of extra-curricular activities.

  Overall Teaching Happiness of child Discipline Extra-curricular
Standard municipal 7.7 7.4 8.3 7.1 6.6
For-profit 8.2 8 8.5 7.9 7.4
Non-profit 8.6 8.6 9 8.5 7.1
International school 8.25 8.2 8.8 8 7.3

Which individual schools/chains came out tops? 

The schools which won the highest approval rating tended to be the international schools run by non-profit foundations, such as British International School Stockholm, Bladins International in Malmö, The English School Gothenburg, Sigtunaskolan, and Stockholm International School (although note that there were only one to three respondents for each of these schools). 

When it came to the for-profit free school chains, there was more variation, with some parents loving their children’s schools and others disappointed. 

Four parents sending their children to the IES chain gave the school ten out of ten, but two IES parents gave their school four or five out of ten. It was a similar story with the Kunskapskolan chain, where one parent gave an eight, another a four.

“The best thing about my child’s school is how respectful the children are towards each other,” send one parent who sent her child to an IES school. “There is a culture of the children being kind and supportive of each other. The teachers have all been amazing, and it’s been really interesting for my child to meet teachers from a huge variety of different countries.” 

Several IES parents also praised how well organised their child’s school was, with high standards of cleanliness and discipline. 

“I chose IES because the school inculcates the right values that I would like my children to have – discipline, respect for teachers, diligence in studying, academic excellence,” one wrote. 

“The staff seem genuinely interested in our concerns. The kids enjoy being there and enjoy learning,” wrote another. 

On the negative side, one noted that “teachers are not paid as well as [at] public schools”, another that “teachers are very often changing”, and another that “no proper curriculum [had been] followed”. 

In general, the most dissatisfied parents had children at municipal schools, perhaps because they were less likely to have actively chosen them. Ten respondents gave their municipality-run school a four or five overall. 

“[There is] nothing to do in their free time and an extremely low level of teaching,” complained one parent, while another complained of “incompetent staff with a lack of social-emotional intelligence”, and another of “extremely large classes”. 

“I’m not entirely sure of the quality of the education,” wrote one Irish parent. “At least one of the teachers seems to think the Republic of Ireland is part of the UK.” 

A particular complaint about municipal schools was the way teachers seemed unwilling to use imaginative and engaging teaching methods. “Some teachers are not able to engage the class with interesting teaching methods,” complained an Australian father. 

Given the level of variation in answers to The Local’s questionnaire between both the best and worst municipality-run schools and the best and worst schools run by the free school chains, it is clearly important to talk to local parents about which school in your area of Sweden seems best. 

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