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.”
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”.
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.