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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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LIVING IN FRANCE

Family-centred society: What it’s really like being a parent in France

From schools to food, behaviour to sports, being a parent in France has its own unique quirks - we asked dad-of-three James Harrington to explain what raising children here is really like (apparently French kids do throw food).

Family-centred society: What it's really like being a parent in France

We moved to southwest France from England in 2009, with our daughter, who was three at the time. We have since added two boys, as well as two cats and two dogs.

This is our experience of being parents and parents-to-be here.

French attitudes to children

France is a family-centric nation. It starts with an official letter, sent to all parents-to-be that contains a contract of sorts between parents and the state. 

It places on parents the responsibility of raising their children to the best of their ability, and in turn it promises to provide good schools and healthcare, access to leisure activities and parks for growing children to play in. 

Your opinion as to how successful France is at holding up its side of the bargain depends on where you live, but we have no complaints where we are and plenty of reasons to be grateful. Parenting is some job, and this letter is an early reminder that support is out there.

That support extends to generous child benefits, additional tax breaks, a useful ‘bonus’ to pay for things like a pram, cot, clothes and so on, access to completely free healthcare for the mother during and after pregnancy, free early healthcare for the newborn – and so on.

Parenting styles

The stereotypical notion of children in France is that they’re treated as tiny adults, expected to behave in an appropriate manner at family get-togethers or at restaurants, while eating smaller versions of what their parents eat and not hollering for the ketchup. 

This is not entirely accurate. French children can be as wild and unruly as any child anywhere: just watch them at birthday parties, when they’re jacked up on sweets and E-number drinks. 

What you soon see is that French parents, on the whole, don’t hold with helicopter parenting. They will happily sit and unconcernedly chat with friends while their kids wreak gentle havoc in the immediate vicinity. As long as nothing and no one gets broken, French parents generally let children just get on with entertaining themselves.

Don’t make the mistake of believing this means they don’t care. They do. They very much do. 

Pregnancy and post-pregnancy care

Our oldest son was born less than a year after we arrived, so we had a lot to learn about the French healthcare system, fast. We’d completed the three-month minimum requirement to allow us access the French state health system via the carte vitale, but were still going through the process when my then-pregnant wife needed urgent hospital care. 

We weren’t properly on the healthcare system and didn’t have top-up health insurance at the time. Staff at the hospital were kind enough to help sort the latter quickly enough to cover the cost of my wife’s hospital stay and our cards came through soon after.

READ ALSO Pregnancy and maternity care: Having a baby in France

With our second boy, things could not have been more different. It was three years later, we had a handle on the healthcare system, our cartes vitales were in order.

For various reasons, my wife didn’t think she was pregnant until she felt our baby move. By that time, she was five months gone. The early stages of pregnancy care were moot. In fact, the most difficult part was setting the ball rolling so late. 

But, each time, the care my wife and our children received was a world away from that which we got in the UK.

For the first three days or so, mother and baby remain in hospital under the care of the perma-calm nurses – who know everything about the health of both mum and newborn. Those shift-swap briefings must be intense. Doctors check in daily to make sure everything is going as it should.

READ ALSO Having a baby in France: 10 lessons learned

Then there’s what’s known as hospitalisation at home. New mums and babies who are doing well enough to go home are allowed to do so after three days, under strict instruction to do nothing but look after their child and themselves. Don’t think this isn’t enforced. It is. It is checked and confirmed daily by a visiting midwife who has mastered the stern stare. 

Other halves – you have work to do. Your job is to look after your partner’s every – every – need; care for older offspring, make sure the house is clean and tidy, and everyone’s fed and watered. And, yes, your efforts are noted. This is why you’re off work.  

Midwife visits continue for some weeks. Then there are regular trips to your GP for further checks and vaccines – these days there are 11 mandatory vaccinations for children in France (this does not include the Covid vaccine). It’s up to you to keep track – but schools may refuse children who are not up to date with their vaccinations.

Maternity and paternity leave

Pregnant employees are entitled to a total 16 weeks paid maternity leave, which is split into two parts – six weeks pre-natal and 10 weeks post-natal. Women pregnant with twins or triplets are entitled to longer maternity leave.

Paternity leave is slightly more complicated. The allowance is 25 days, rising to 32 in case of multiple births. 

It is important to note fathers are also entitled to three days’ mandatory birth leave. This is separate to their paternity allowance. 

The first four days of a father’s paternity leave must be taken immediately after their mandatory birth leave. Confusingly, the latter is calculated in working days, the former in calendar days. But, basically, the father of a child born on a Saturday calculates their birth leave from the following Monday, and adds their four-day immediate paternity leave after that.

The remaining 21 days must be taken within the first six months of a new arrival. It can be split into two periods, but the minimum duration is five calendar days.

Things are slightly different, too, for self-employed parents. Best advice is to check on the Ameli website to confirm what you’re entitled to. 

Creche / school

The question of going back to work is tough for any new parent. But, many parents do need to go back to work. In England, where our childcare costs were more than our mortgage, this was tough. In France, where what you pay is calculated against your income, it was financially much simpler.

Our oldest son went to a childminder – a nounou – not far from where we lived. We paid about half of her monthly bill, the rest was covered by the government. For that, he was fed and looked after from just before 8am until close to 6pm.

From the age of three, he went, as our daughter had done a few years’ earlier and as is now mandatory, to the youngest class in the maternelle section at a local school.

Our second son went to a crèche run by the local authority. Because our income at the time was intermittent and quite low, fees were very low, but the care he received was top notch. The building – next to a school – had been knocked about a bit but the rooms were clean and tidy, the toys were old and worn but safe. And the staff were universally lovely.

As for schools, the cost of education is covered by the state out of taxes. It’s not perfect. You could, for example, easily argue there’s too much emphasis on testing and too much box ticking. State schools have their problems, like many other countries. 

Private education is affordable, certainly in comparison to other countries. About €1,500 will cover a school’s annual fees for day pupils. It’s widely assumed that children who go to fee-paying schools do better – probably because their parents are more financially invested. 

READ ALSO International v French schools – how to decide

Our experience of education in France is of fee-paying schools because that’s the path we were guided down early on. That we haven’t deviated from that path is the best indication that we’re happy with the education they’re getting and the sparky, energetic – and, yes, argumentative – young people they’re turning into.

Homework, too, happens. Even when it’s not supposed to. Younger children aren’t, officially, supposed to do homework – but don’t be surprised that they get some. Regularly. You can rage against the machine if you like.

We didn’t. We decided to sit with our children and help. We’ve learned a huge amount about France, its history and the French language that way – as well as a whole new way to do division. Maths, it turns out, isn’t maths. Or I’m old. To be honest, it’s probably the latter.

Schools can be good for parents, too. A number of friendships developed from school-gate acquaintances because our children knew their children. 

Food

It’s almost illegal not to mention food in articles like this about France. 

Children in France, on the whole, eat very well. School meals tend to be three, even four, courses. There’s occasional tat on the menu – even chicken nuggets do a job every now and then, and our youngest still likes them – but on the whole the food is nutritious and healthy. And affordable. 

Meals need to be good. School days are long – in part to fit in the two-hour lunchbreak which allows children to eat their meals without gulping them down, and to decompress after a busy morning conjugating verbs and learning about Charlemagne. 

READ ALSO Do French kids get the best school lunches in the world?

There’s also a lesson here about food.

Children learn about nutrition at a young age. They’re expected to understand what a healthy diet involves, and what they eat at school shows the way. It really is quite the thing.

Holidays

School holidays – particularly the grands vacances, which last eight weeks every summer – can strike fear into the hearts of many a working parent, wondering how to entertain their bundles of joy, and stop them turning completely feral, while holding down a job.

But, France has got parents’ backs. Every town and city has ‘maisons des jeunes et de la culture’ – MJCs –  community centres that take in local children and entertain every drop of energy out of them from around 7am to 7pm, five days a week, every school holiday. 

For a few euros a day, the MJCs’ vetted staff look after youngsters aged from three to 15, sometimes older, bombarding them with activities from sport to cooking, art to dancing, often with an over-arching theme for the duration of the holidays. Morning and afternoon snacks, and a typical French three or four-course lunch included. 

Everything is means-tested, too, based on a ‘quotient familiale’ (QF), a figure calculated based on the previous year’s income tax declaration. The higher the QF, the less you pay, which means kids from households less well off than ours can have something to look forward to a few days a week – it’s available full or part-time – and their parents get a break. 

Trips are offered regularly. Our oldest has been skiing with both her school and the MJC. It cost us €60 all-in. Our boys have both been on summer week-long camping trips, with activities morning, afternoon, and evening, for about the same price. 

They’ve been on day-trips to theme parks and zoos, hiked in mountains and canoed down rivers, been introduced to fencing, horse-riding, and archery, had a go at golf and done a whole host of activities we couldn’t hope to afford or have the time to organise while we worked for a fraction of the real-world cost. 

MJCs are everywhere. There are five MJCs in our 40,000-plus population town, each welcoming around 150 children each, holiday in, holiday out. 

Sports / activities

Contrary to what some may say, there is sport in school. As well as lessons, children from 11 onwards can use some of their lunch period trying out sports as part of the national UNSS scheme.

But, it is equally true to say that most children get their sport through clubs in their town. Early September, there may be a large-scale event nearby in which the – hopefully many – sports institutions in your town tout for members for the next year. 

Our daughter has done fencing – she qualified for a national event three years running before deciding she wanted to stop – and boxing. Our oldest son does rugby and judo. Our youngest hasn’t yet gone for anything. Swimming may be an option, who knows?

As part of the registration process, your child may need a medical certificate from your GP confirming that there’s no reason for them not to take part in their chosen sport, and they may also need insurance. Membership covers registration with the national body overseeing the sport, and – for less well-off households – part of the costs may be covered by an annual check, while many organisations allow for monthly payments if necessary.

Even so, with the cost of living rising, finding the couple of hundred extra euros a year needed for membership, plus any kit, and travel costs – honestly, you can go all over to tournaments – soon adds up. 

Outdoor stuff

Part of the ‘contract’ sent to parents-to-be states that outdoor spaces for them to enjoy with their children will be provided. They are. And France, naturally, has plenty of outdoor space for everyone to enjoy, from parks to beaches and lakes to mountains and rivers, and wide open fields. 

It’s stupidly easy to spend time outside in France. The weather and the views almost demand it. Summer festivals and events drag you to squares and parks. And kids love to charge around, make one-time friends at the park, and run around playing games of their own devising. It would be rude not to let them.

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