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SCHOOLS

How do international parents in Sweden feel about Omicron in schools?

More than 90 international parents responded to The Local's survey with their views on the Omicron outbreak as parents with children in Swedish schools.

How do international parents in Sweden feel about Omicron in schools?
File photo of children at school. Photo: Stian Lysberg Solum/NTB scanpix/TT

Sweden is currently experiencing high case rates of the Omicron variant of Covid-19, with several Swedish regions reporting that schools are struggling to stay open as the variant continues to spread. Staff are having to stay home because they’re infected or quarantining, which is also affecting children and parents.

We asked The Local’s readers to answer a survey about their feelings on the Omicron outbreak, how it has affected them as an international family, how they felt their child’s school was handling the outbreak, and their opinions on vaccines for children.

We heard from over 90 international parents, of which 39 had children in förskola or preschool (aged 1-6), 23 had children in grundskola (aged 7-16), and 3 had children in gymnasium (aged 17-19). A further 17 had children attending different types of school, and two had children who were not currently attending school in Sweden. The remainder did not wish to say what kind of school their children attended.

A majority of parents (51) expressed negative emotions when asked how they felt about the Omicron outbreak, with responses including words and phrases such as “frightening”, “doubtful” and “very concerned”.

A smaller number of respondents (35) had positive or neutral responses, including hope that Omicron could spell the end of the pandemic, relief that it seemed milder, as well as those who felt “OK” or “fine” about the outbreak.

Sweden recently decided not to recommend Covid vaccines for all children aged 5-11, meaning that vaccines are only recommended for children in risk groups, and for those aged 12 or over.

When asked about their thoughts on vaccinations for children (although our survey did not specify the age), the majority of parents (51) thought they were a good idea. Fourteen respondents were against the idea, and 25 were unsure.

“Risky if they bring the virus home from school”

Sachin, a Swedish citizen originally from India, expressed worries about children catching the virus at school and infecting other members of the family: “We feel scared, as there are many cases – not only in school but also in the individual classes – and the school hardly cares about it, they just had a couple of days of online learning and asked students to come back. As for some of us, we also have the children’s grandparents visiting them and it would be very risky if they bring the virus home from school.”

A pregnant American mother based in Stockholm was also afraid that her daughter may bring the virus home from preschool: “I’m very concerned. I’m 34 weeks pregnant with a two-year-old attending a new preschool that just recently sent out notice of Covid exposure and is also short on staff. I worry for them, the kids and the families with members in risk groups.

“Personally, I’m worried of getting Covid again when my due date is just weeks away. I’ve already got it this winter and it’s not something I’d like to deal with again, even if I am double vaccinated. I’m still feeling the effects of Covid after several weeks. I feel like it’s just a matter of time before my toddler brings it back home from school.”

“Hopeful”

Some parents expressed hope that the Omicron variant, which appears to be milder, could be a way out of the pandemic.

Steven, a US citizen based in Gothenburg, described the virus as “exhausting to keep dealing with”, but, after a family member tested positive and had a milder case of the illness, he felt “hopeful that this is the beginning of an endemic virus like the flu”.

Rebecca, an American physician living in Uppsala, said that she “feels fine with (Omicron), as it may be the beginning of the end for the pandemic”.

Mehmet, a Turkish reader based in Malmö, said he was “hopeful to see this variant convert the pandemic to an endemic”.

“Doing their best”

A number of parents mentioned that schools were doing their best despite the situation and expressed empathy for teachers in schools which were understaffed, whereas others expressed worries over the quality of care their children were receiving in short-staffed schools.

“I think they are doing the best they can. My two-year-old’s section closed down for an entire week due to staff infections, and now they are asking us to keep our children home if at all possible because of staffing shortages. Their thinking is to have staff available for children of parents who are essential workers, which I am. But I wonder about the quality of care they’re getting if they are short on staff…” said Annelise Enoksson, a nurse from the United States, living in Nyköping.

“I feel bad for the teachers, they have very little resources to do anything,” said a Spanish reader based in Stockholm.

An American based in Stockholm said that “I think they’re doing the best they can with the limited guidance that they have. Parents are now asked to wear masks when we go inside the preschool and they inform us if/when there has been a Covid case in the school.”

A German reader in Gothenburg said her child’s school was “amazing, adapting to the situation on a daily basis to keep the school open”.

Stefano Azzolini, originally from Italy but now based in the Stockholm area, said teachers were “doing 110 percent of their capabilities” but that a lack of staff “can’t be fixed by individual performance”.

“I am surprised at the overly relaxed Swedish response to Covid and the latest Omicron variant. I am both a foreign parent and teacher here in Sweden,” said Sarah, a Brit based in Västerås. “The situation in schools is balancing on a thin wire.” She added that her daughter’s school was “struggling to stay open, but it’s doing the best it can under the circumstances”.

Disappointed”, “frustrated”, “betrayed”

Sarah, along with other parents in our survey, expressed frustration that the government had not implemented more measures to halt the spread of infection sooner. “If simple rules such as the wearing of face masks in shops and better social distancing had been introduced at the start, perhaps now we wouldn’t have a crisis on our hands. I am disappointed with the government for letting the spread of the Omricron variant get out of control due to their lack of obligatory rules. It is now our children that are suffering,” she said.

A Colombian reader based in Täby echoed her sentiments: “It seems the government does not really have a responsible approach to protect kids. I feel they are deciding to leave schools out of the loop and the consequences are evident. In our daughter’s school, 11 out of 17 staff members have been sick and 13 out of 20 students in the class have been absent, spreading the virus and interrupting our work.”

Graham Minenor-Matheson, a Brit in Örebro, felt “betrayed by both weak government and public health measures and angry at anti-vaxxers”, adding that his child’s school was dealing with the new wave “very well”.

An American, living in Västra Götaland, said he felt “incredibly frustrated. It feels like the region, the schools and the government have all just given up on our children. We had to travel outside of the country to get a vaccine that millions of children have already received as a small measure of protection for our kids.”

He further added that his children’s school was “unprepared for any kind of remote learning or contingencies even two years into this crisis”.

Some parents would prefer temporary distance learning for their child’s school. Photo: Gorm Kallestad/TT/NTB

Distance learning or open schools?

Some respondents expressed a wish for their children’s school to implement distance learning. An Asian reader based in Stockholm described the situation as “very scary. We had distance learning when things were bad before, but now it is not even an option for upper schools to do so when things are so much worse. We have been asking about moving to distance learning and we know there are teachers who are asking for it too, but we have been told ‘no’. We have been very stressed out about sending our child to school. This is just insane.”

A Zimbabwean reader felt that a short period of distance learning would be a good idea, adding that she felt her children were “not safe”. “If they do a school lockdown for four weeks that will keep kids and teachers safe away from spreading the virus. Introduce distance lessons on zoom. Children can continue to learn from home.”

Some parents, on the other hand, were less worried about Omicron than other previous strains of the virus, and were more concerned about the effect staying at home from school was having on their children.

One British reader based in Malmö was resigned to catching the virus, stating that “as Omicron is milder and my son and the rest of the family are vaccinated I’m OK with it, as we have to accept that we’ll get Omicron or be somewhat protected by the vaccines anyway. Keeping schools open is important for our kids’ development and welfare.”

Karen from Germany, based in Stockholm, had the same view: “I think it was a matter of time, we have seen the spread in other countries and now it has reached Sweden. I’d rather take the risk of my kids getting infected at dagis (preschool) than keep them home for weeks. The loss of education weighs much higher than the risk of infection.”

“Preschool is the only support system we have”

One particular issue affecting international parents can be the lack of an extended family in Sweden, meaning that parents do not have anyone else they can ask for help with childcare when schools are forced to close. One reader based in Gothenburg, from a non-EU country, explained that this had caused issues for their own studies:

“I rely on preschool to be able to fulfil my responsibilities, there were days where they had to close due to staff infection. I would have liked to avoid sending my kid at least when there are outbreaks, but since I’m in school and no one from my extended family (such as my parents) has been allowed to travel here, preschool is the only option for me,” they said.

Another reader, from Indonesia but based in Stockholm, had the same issue: “Since preschool is the only support system we have in Sweden (no family here), I was kind of ready to take the risk. And sure enough, we got the virus recently from preschool. I was sure it was from preschool because we didn’t have any other close contacts prior to us showing the symptoms.”

Thanks to everyone who took part in the survey for sharing your thoughts. Please note that this was not scientific: We asked our readers to share their thoughts on the new Omicron variant, and closed the survey after we had received 92 responses. It was optional for respondents to share information about their nationality, and those who chose to share this information came from at least 21 different countries. The comments published here are intended as a representative sample of the responses we received.

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FAMILY

How Sweden’s gender-equal divorce law can leave women worse off

Sweden is often lauded as being gender-equal, reflected in Swedish divorce law. But that doesn't mean that Sweden is the best place for women to get divorced, as Sarah Jefford discovered following her split three years ago.

How Sweden's gender-equal divorce law can leave women worse off

Moving to a new country can bring enough turmoil, stress, and culture shock to put a marriage through its paces.  Causes of divorce and separation among native Swedes and immigrant partners include emotional estrangement, loneliness, and a lack of independence in a new country. But what happens when a Swede and foreign spouse decide to split up in Sweden when they share a child?

For expats enduring a divorce to a native in Sweden, separation can be especially acrimonious if children are involved and one of the plaintiffs is financially and civically dependent on the other.

Immigrant divorce rates in Sweden are around 15 percent higher than native Swedish divorce rates and marriages between a Swede and a foreigner are between a quarter and two-and-a-half times more likely to end in divorce than those between two Swedes, according to a study by Martin Dribe, Professor of Economic History at Lund University.

British expat, Sarah Jefford, considers herself, since her split nearly three years back, to be trapped in Sweden, destitute, and fighting to be able to leave the country with her son to return back home to family and friends to rebuild a life for themselves. She would like other expats to know what they’re getting into with regards to absence of alimony and child support in Sweden.

“It’s not that good towards women”

She tells the Local that “expats should realise this because Sweden is super popular at the moment, you hear constantly in the papers that it is such a civil society–fantastic for women, the kids, and an equal society? Well, these are the disadvantages of an equal society. And the truth is that it’s not that good towards women.”

She met her Swedish husband, a pension fund CIO, in Switzerland and they married in the UK. Happy with the course their burgeoning family was on, she agreed to put her own job as a winemaker on hold and move to Sweden to follow her husband’s career together with their child in 2014.

She could never imagine it would end in divorce, let alone that she would find herself struggling to make ends meet and look after her child after her husband walked out amidst an office affair nearly three years ago.  Though they share joint custody and despite his wealthy career managing a top Swedish pension fund, her ex refuses to financially support their son, now 14, who lives with her.

Photo: Sarah Jefford

“It did not occur to me that were I to get divorced it would be the law of the country of residence that I would be subject to and not the UK, my home country, the country where I got married.”

Swedish law stipulates that joint assets (those acquired during the marriage) are split in half when a couple divorces in Sweden. Unlike in the UK or North America, there is no division of pension and alimony is not available. There is no child allowance if the children spend one week with one parent and one week with the other (regardless if one of the parties has no income).

Should a child live with one parent full-time, the other must pay child support.  The amount varies according to the child’s age. 1,673 kronor until the child becomes 11, 1,823 kronor till the child turns 15, and 2,273 after that. Försäkringskassan (the Swedish Social Insurance Agency) estimates how much the non-custodial parent must pay to Försäkringskassan. 

In Sweden, there are other options for dealing with issues regarding property partition and child custody arrangements, family mediation and constructive dialogue are advised tactics. The European e-Justice portal includes a comprehensive description of divorce law and settlement procedures in English.

In Jefford’s case she claims 1,823 kronor (about €170) a month for her 14-year-old child through the agency.

“So the Försäkringskassa pays me and then goes after my ex for the money.  As a result, there is no child support or alimony depending on the parent’s income. How should I bring up a teenager with that? I mean it it barely pays for the fancy sneakers that teenagers like so much, and definitely does not cover their food and they eat like horses at that age.”

Jefford’s business as a wine educator has suffered immensely during the pandemic, and she finds it near impossible to keep up with the price of living in Stockholm whilst supporting her child.  She has been scraping by working as a substitute teacher and doing sporadic odd jobs which she says she can’t survive off, or pay rent with, or get bank loans for a mortgage. 

Feeling completely stuck, Jefford says that had she known about Swedish divorce laws and the fact that they are legally binding in the place of residence, she would have “never moved here, or got married.”

Jefford recalls friends in France and Switzerland being gobsmacked by her predicament:

“Foreigners are envious of Sweden’s generous parental leave, and that’s talked about a lot. So the focus is on Sweden being an amazing country, because you get this parental leave, right?”

“But it blurs the fact that other problems with the system going towards total equality are actually misguided in a way. Great, you know, equal pay and opportunities for men and women. I’m all for that, of course.  But it doesn’t always work–you have to take into consideration circumstances.  I think the system of equality works if everybody is equal in life, or has the same advantages and has the same kind of life and opportunities.”

“But if you don’t have that, if you don’t come from that, then that system doesn’t work and is unfair. That’s how I see it. And I think it’s really scary.”

By Matthew Weaver

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