How Denmark got its children back to school

Denmark was the first country in Europe to reopen day care and primary schools after the strict coronavirus lockdown. This is my in-depth piece for The Local, Europe on how Denmark did it. This was a labour of love but I so enjoyed writing it. To be able to use my Danish language skills to follow this story from the start, to call on my brilliant friends and family in Denmark for case studies and to use my own experience of the girls’ day care; it really felt like a milestone – the pinnacle of a settling-in win. (I wrote a series of these when we moved here, which you can find under ‘The Adventure’ menu).

Krystalgade, Copenhagen

‘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.

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.

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.

“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.

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.

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