Finnish students are heading back to school on Wednesday, after an unprecedented year that saw classes suspended during the worst of the coronavirus epidemic in spring, and a switch to distance learning for tens of thousands of pupils.
Although classes resumed for two weeks at the end of May, this month still marks a major test for educators, parents, local authorities and students: from kindergarten to university.
“The same type of guidelines will be enacted as was during the spring which means all students and all children should take of their hand hygiene, education providers should make sure there’s more space in school facilities than what there is normally, and that different groups are being separated during the day” explains Education Minister Li Andersson.
The basics of social distancing remain in place where possible, although in a crowded school environment that’s not always going to be practically enforceable. Still, the government and public health officials were heartened by May’s resumption of in-person teaching which didn’t result in any new viral infection chains.
“The most important guideline of all is that if you have any kind of symptoms of a flu or if you have traveled to countries such as Spain for example, Spain is at the moment classified as a high risk country, then you should stay at home and not attend classes in person and if you have symptoms go and take a covid test as soon as possible” Andersson tells News Now Finland.
In the spring there had been a sometimes spirited public discussion of the merits of resuming contact teaching, and whether it posed an increased risk for children or staff. In Helsinki an estimated 10% of children were kept away from school for various epidemic-related reasons but Andersson says the discussion has evolved since then.
“I think the big debate in Finland we had already in the spring when we made the decision that students who were studying in primary education that they went back to school for a period of two weeks before the summer. And the teacher’s union were not very happy with that decision, but I got a lot of good feedback from parents” she says.
“Many of the parents thought is was very useful for their kids to have an opportunity to see their teachers and classmates in person before the summer break” Andersson adds.
The minister says now for the autumn term, her perception is that parents and unions alike “understands the need to go back to school now.”
In future, government would do things differently
One lesson that ministers and public health officials learned not just about education, but about other aspects of dealing with the pandemic, is that adopting a national strategy is a blunt tool – when the coronavirus situation varied wildly from region to region, and even municipality to municipality.
That means in the event of any second wave of the pandemic, there would be a more targeted approach to school closures.
“We do not want to go back to a model where you have all of the students in all of the country being in distance learning for a long period as was the case in the spring.”
A change in the law for autumn will allow schools to switch between distance learning and contact learning to suit their own circumstances.
“There is a flexibility if there is a pressing need, if the education providers cannot ensure safety otherwise. But also in this model it means the kids would be at home for a week at home then a week at school” Li Andersson explains.
Listen to the full interview with Education Minister Li Andersson (Left) on the latest episode of our summer Podkäst.