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Denmark back to school with alcohol gel and double desks

Denmark's primary schools have been operating again for a month now - and while the country's R number wavered, it's now holding at .7, writes Richard Orange in Copenhagen


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At the Lykkebo Skole primary school in Copenhagen, head teacher Soren Friis stands outside the entry to the stairwell leading up to the first and second-year classrooms, saying good morning to each pupil and then giving each a squirt of alcohol gel in their right palm.

Just 10 metres away at another stairwell, his colleague Irene Nielsen is doing the same.

It's a month now since Danish prime minister Mette Frederiksen visited Lykkebo Skole on the day Denmark became the first country in Europe to reopen schools for pupils up to the age of 11 - something not envisaged in Ireland for months yet.

"You know what? The kids get so used to it," Nielsen says. "Just me standing here like this, they see me and they know what to do. The routines have come really quickly."

"The parents, the pupils and the teachers have all been very pleased," Friis adds. "In some cases, it's been their happiest time in school, because we have a lot of teachers per student. It's 10 pupils for each teacher now. Normally it's 25."

Pupils have enjoyed having more lessons outside, both in the school grounds and at a nearby park.

There is no sign here of the staggered drop-off and pick-up times, or strict socially distanced queuing systems that were enforced at many Danish schools when they opened a month ago. Riis doesn't appear to be paying too much attention to the two nine-year-olds kicking a ball around in the playground in front of him either.

But with four different entries into its 1930s functionalist building, Riis argues Lykkebo Skole is able to dispense with some of the more onerous restrictions.

Pupils from different classes are each assigned to a separate entrance, after which they follow a one-way system to and from their classrooms so they don't brush past others on the stairs and in corridors.

Once in the classroom, each child has a double desk to themselves, ensuring a two-metre distance from each classmate. And they wash their hands so frequently that some teachers are starting to report growing problems with eczema and skin irritation.

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The problem, Friis concedes, comes at break times, when policing Denmark's two-metre rule has required vigilance from teachers. (It was reduced to one metre last Sunday).

"The children have all the time had big difficulties keeping their distance, especially when they are going on break or going to play. It's very difficult for them. But the parents and teachers are very good at reminding them about the rules."

In Denmark, the teachers' unions all supported the reopening on April 15, requiring only that schools respected the guidelines issued by the Danish Health Authority.

"Teachers in Denmark have felt quite safe," Dorte Lange, vice-president of the Danish Union of Teachers, says. "We have a society built quite a lot on trust between people and the government, and cooperation between the trade unions and the authorities."

In a sense that's because the situation with coronavirus was very different. Denmark went into lockdown early. At the start of this month, it briefly looked as if Denmark's reopening of schools had been accompanied by a rise in the rate of infections. The country's reproduction number crept up from 0.7 to 1 in the first week after schools opened.

But Denmark's infectious diseases agency SSI last Monday issued new figures showing that the number had fallen back to 0.7 by last week.

"This is probably due to schools' enormous efforts both to keep physical distance and ensure good hygiene," said Tyra Grove Krause, head of the agency's Infectious Disease Epidemiology department, said. "But it also indicates that people are still taking care more generally."

Last Friday the country celebrated the first day without a death from coronavirus since March.

But the smooth reopening also reflects the way the government consulted with teachers' unions from the start on guidelines for the reopening, with both sides working from the same SSI expert report on the likely impact of reopening.

Teachers who are in a risk group, or who live with someone in a risk group, have been allowed to stay home, and since the reopening, Lange has heard of only very few cases of teachers being infected.

Teachers' unions are today focused more on how to keep some of the positive changes that have come with the reopening, such as the shift to having fewer classroom hours in the school day, but with fewer pupils per teacher.

A bigger challenge for Riis has been dealing with parents. "You need to provide a lot of information on how the school day will be and on how you will be taking care of the children, and you need to have a lot of understanding for parents' anxiety," he says. "You have to give a lot of time for the parents, answering their questions, and replying to emails and so on. It's a 24/7 job."

Jeanette Paulsen, who is dropping off her daughter Maya, said that as she suffers from asthma and is therefore in a risk group, she had been worried about the return.

"But I talked to the teacher and she was very comforting, telling me about all the routines they had put in place, so I thought 'OK, then they can go'."

The positive numbers have opened the way for life at Denmark's schools to take a further big step towards normality tomorrow, when the older children from age 11 and upwards return.

At Lykkebo, this will mean a return to 25 pupils per classroom, a return to desk-sharing, a more crowded playground, and busier drop-off and pick-up times. "Almost, we will have a normal school day," Riis says. "The problem for the pupils will be that they can't interact in the same way, they can't play football in the same way, they can't fight, and do all these things and they love to do."


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