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DENMARK

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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SCHOOLS

Schools update: Italy makes a U-turn on Covid distance learning rules

In under 24 hours, the Italian authorities have changed the rules on distance learning again, scrapping the revised plans to return an entire class to distance learning if just one infection is recorded.

Schools update: Italy makes a U-turn on Covid distance learning rules
Italy has tightened the Covid health restrictions in schools amid rising case numbers. Photo: Marco Bertorello /AFP

The rules on when distance learning – or ‘DAD‘ (‘didattica a distanza’) as it’s known in Italy – is triggered in schools have changed again: the whole class will automatically go into quarantine only if there are three positives cases detected.

Just one day after announcing tighter restrictions to keep the spread of coronavirus in check within schools, Italian authorities have now promised better support for tracking of cases to avoid activating remote learning.

“There will be no return to DAD in the case of the presence of a single infected pupil,” government sources told news agency Ansa.

The revised rules “will intensify testing activities in schools, in order to strengthen the tracking”, because “ensuring attendance in presence and the conduct of lessons at school in absolute safety is a priority of the government,” they added.

After studying the health situation in schools along with the Scientific and Technical Committee (CTS), Italy’s coronavirus emergency commissioner, Francesco Figliuolo, backed the move and guaranteed support for improved tracing.

The decision comes less than a day after the authorities announced that quarantine would apply immediately for the whole class – and distance learning would replace the physical classroom – if a single pupil was found to test positive for Covid-19.

The new regulation was confirmed in a circular on Tuesday and signed by the Ministry of Health’s director of prevention, Giovanni Rezza, according to reports.

Photo by Vincenzo PINTO / AFP

Authorities had given the green light to the move based on concern over the sudden increase in school-age infections, as well as worries over the rising cases of the Omicron variant, while the regions had requested to tighten up the rules on the management of quarantines at school.

READ ALSO: ‘Get vaccinated’: Italian virologists urge caution over Omicron Covid variant

The increasing weekly incidence of the number of new infections in schoolchildren was cited as a cause for concern, amounting to 125 per 100,000 in the period November 19th – 25th, according to official data from Italy’s Higher Health Institute (ISS).

These figures are “a far cry from the optimal value of 50 per 100,000,” which allows for better tracking of cases, according to the details of the circular.

The latest rules on distance learning

The rules as they now stand (again), therefore, dictate that distance learning will be triggered – or rather will continue to be triggered – with just one positive in class for children up to the age of six, where it is more difficult to maintain distance and since masks are not compulsory for this age group.

Quarantine is enforced for classes with two positive cases among pupils aged 6 to 12 – a group currently not eligible for vaccination.

From the age of 12 onwards, a class will go to DAD if there are at least three positive cases, as before.

Speaking on the short-lived decision to change the school rules on quarantine, Deputy Health Minister Andrea Costa said, “We considered it prudent, with a choice shared with the regions, to return to the initial plans.”

He also referred to the headteachers, who had complained about implementing the rules and that it was difficult to track cases.

The President of the Association of Headteachers, Antonello Giannelli, said that the decision to enforce DAD following one positive case was exactly what school leaders had warned about and that they hadn’t been heard.

He said they were ‘Cassandras‘; an Italian term used to refer to people who predict disastrous events without being believed.

Photo: Vincenzo PINTO / AFP

“The schools, despite a thousand difficulties and with an immense workload on the shoulders of managers and staff, have held up,” he said .

“The same cannot be said of the prevention departments, which have not been able to guarantee the timing of testing from the outset, and in many cases have not applied the tracking procedures,” he added.

EXPLAINED: What parents should know about the new Covid rules in Italian schools

Since the beginning of the school year and until now, the rules stipulated that three positive cases in a class would trigger remote learning.

However, many local health authorities struggled to quickly carry out the swabs needed in classes with one or two positive cases. So much so, that some head teachers refused to apply the protocol, according to Italian media reports – a problem the authorities have now pledged to assist with.

In recent weeks, as the number of infections and the number of quarantined classes have increased, regional authorities have begun to push for a return to the more restrictive model previously in place.

Education Minister Patrizio Bianchi spoke on Tuesday of the decision being “an absolutely prudential measure”, taken because “we want to keep schools absolutely safe” – even if the ministry’s priority is to keep “teaching in presence”.

The decision on Tuesday came as a cause of concern for the trade unions, who expressed worries about implementing the new rules.

“We have urgently requested a meeting with representatives of the Ministry of Health because the circular has alarmed all school staff and produced new problems for managers who will have to review the procedures for tracking again,” stated Maddalena Gissi of the Italian Confederation of Workers’ Trade Unions (CISL).

The U-turn on strategy is intended to prevent exactly this eventuality and to maintain school attendance – Italy’s education minister Patrizio Bianchi said at the beginning of the school year that, “We will never return to DAD”.

The government implemented steps to ensure that pupils could learn in person, after constantly changing Covid restrictions kept them in and out of classrooms since February 2020.

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