Schools are open for contact teaching, but parents and pupils are divided

Students go back to class on Thursday after almost two months of distance learning, but they'll have to take special precautions to limit contact during school hours.

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File picture showing exterior of Westendinpuisto Primary School, Espoo / Credit: News Now Finland

Thousands of students in primary and lower secondary school go back to class on Thursday, after almost two months of enforced distance learning during the coronavirus crisis.

Pupils and teachers are returning with just two weeks to go until the end of term, and schools have had to re-arrange a new learning environment that tries to keep everyone as socially distant as possible. Not an easy task in a classroom setting.

At Westend Park Primary School in Espoo, they’re spreading the pupils out as thinly as possible.

“We are trying to follow the guidelines of the Finnish government and the Ministry of Education, and we have luckily some free classrooms in our school that are being used for particular subjects like nature studies, arts and handicrafts, and we will turn those into normal classrooms, and that’s how we can take bigger groups and divide them” explains Principal Marja Perkkiö.

In addition to teaching time, there’s also a lot of logistics involved in moving children around at the start of the day, in between classes at break and lunchtimes, and at the end of the day as well.

“We have also carefully thought and planned how children will move. Classes take turns, and teachers will guide them when school begins in the morning and at break time. At lunch we have created a system for taking turns, and quite a few meals will be taken in the classes” Perkkiö tells News Now Finland.

The school is also making hand hygiene a priority for the 1st to 6th grade students, with more frequent washing added to their timetables.

“It’s first thing in the morning, and last thing in the afternoon, and every time in between! We’ve ordered extra loads of soap and hand towels. We are equipped” says Marja Perkkiö.

Capital city preparations

In Helsinki too, educators have been preparing to welcome students back to schools. While the majority here, and around the country, are expected to return there will be exemptions for medical reasons and likely a limited number of parents who refuse to send their children and request a leave of absence.

The Trade Union of Education in Finland has previously told News Now Finland they don’t expect parents to face any sanctions from schools or local authorities if they keep their kids out of class.

Meanwhile the City of Helsinki is trying to soothe the fears over coronavirus that some parents will inevitably have.

“We will do our best to organise safe and smooth classroom teaching in the midst of these exceptional circumstances. Several new measures will be introduced, and we will adapt to them all together” says Liisa Pohjolainen, Head of the City of Helsinki’s Education Division.

Those new measures include keeping student groups distanced from each other; moving classrooms to other buildings inside or outside school grounds; staggering teaching hours; and keeping teachers with the same class all day where possible.

And when the academic year finishes in a couple of weeks, the traditional celebrations are canceled.

File picture of Ähtäri student Hermanni Huhtamäki

Students cautiously welcome 

In Hamina, 19-year old Mimi Korjus has just graduated from upper secondary school but her 13-year old brother is back to school this week.

“I think most parents are not happy about it. My parents aren’t happy because there’s concerns here that coronavirus will spread, and elderly people will get it and die” she says in a phone interview.

Mimi’s final exams were concertinaed into two weeks instead of three by the epidemic restrictions and although she’s not scared for her brother to return to classes, she thinks that with just two weeks of term, the studies could have been done remotely.

In Pirkkala, 16-year old Anni Hautakangas says there is a good side and a bad side to re-starting contact teaching.

“If there are people who are not that good at school, they get better help when they are in school. And you meet your friends when you go back. But there’s very many people there, and maybe it’s a risk” she says.

In Ähtäri, Hermanni Huhtamäki has just graduated from high school but he will go back into the classroom to work as a teaching assistant this week.

“Going back to school is a good idea because otherwise the impacts to mental health and social contacts would be much worse. Also, schools can get prepared for the autumn” he tells News Now Finland.

Hermanni has two younger brothers, one of whom is a special needs student who’ll stay at home for the time being.

“I know that there is a small risk of getting sick, even seriously ill, but I still think that the positive sides of seeing friends or other people are greater” he explains.

“But if the corona situation get regionally worse, then I would change my mind.”