Denmark, Norway, and Taiwan reopen schools

Year three: Exhibits from the Tate show by Oscar-winning filmmaker, Steve McQueen. © Steve McQueen

Should schools reopen on 1 June? Some believe that keeping them closed is essential to controlling the coronavirus pandemic. Others, however, think it is doing more harm than good.

For Elsa Jensen, it was a horrible shock.

She had been looking forward to staying at home in Copenhagen for weeks and weeks after Easter, with an extended holiday because of the coronavirus pandemic. But last week, Denmark’s prime minister broke the news that for children aged 11 and younger, schools would open again tomorrow, after being closed for only a month. What could be more unfair?

Because of the pandemic, 90% of students around the world – a total of over 1.5 billion – have been out of school. But opinions vary widely as to how long closures should last. In Taiwan, which acted very quickly to contain the virus, schools re-opened at the end of February. In Norway, they will start reopening on Monday.

British experts and politicians are sharply divided.

The official government policy is that closures will continue until scientists advise that it safe to end them; insiders have suggested that this might not be until well into the summer term. The Welsh Education Minister, Kirsty Williams, thinks that September is a possibility.

But some within the government are demanding that schools go back at the end of the Easter holidays. One unnamed minister told the Times that this “could kick-start the economy”.

Those who share this view have been encouraged by a report by academics at University College London (UCL). It suggests that closing schools makes very little difference to the spread of the virus, perhaps reducing it by a mere 2%.

One possible scenario is that schools could reopen gradually rather than all at once.

Children of key workers, such as NHS staff, have been attending school as usual, and that could be extended to the children of dentists, plumbers, and shop workers. Young teachers could return to work before older ones, who are more at risk.

The general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, Geoff Barton, thinks that the end of the May half-term is a likely time for schools to go back. “When the decision to cancel exams was made, it was thought that the peak of hospital cases would be in mid-May. It looks as though the pandemic is at its height right now. That opens a window for schools to reopen before the summer holidays,” he said.

Should schools reopen on 1 June?

Sometime never

Some argue that it is impossible to say at this stage. The decision must be based on the progress of the virus, and that means looking at the figures day by day. It would be unwise to put a huge number of children back into contact with each other before the danger has passed. The suggestion that they could be distanced from each other within their schools is completely impractical.

Others say that schools must reopen as soon as possible. The UCL report shows that the effect of closing them is minimal; in the meantime, the economy is suffering and parents who could be doing vital work are busy with childcare instead. The closure is particularly damaging for children from poor homes, who do not have many resources for learning at home and may go hungry without school meals.

You Decide

  1. Would you rather have long terms and long holidays, or short terms and short holidays?
  2. In some countries, such as France, school holidays start at different times according to the region in which you live. Is that a better system than all schools breaking up at the same time?

Activities

  1. Make a Venn diagram with the names of all the people who you regularly come into contact with. In one circle, list those you meet during the school term; in the other, list those you meet in the holidays. The people you meet both times should appear where the circles overlap.
  2. Using the same structure as the UCL report, write an academic study of how the pandemic has affected the amount of time members of your family spend in bed. At the end, recommend whether or not they should change their habits, explaining why. Then present the study to your family and answer their questions about it.

Some People Say...

“Uncertainty and expectation are the joys of life. Security is an insipid thing.”

William Congreve (1670-1729), English playwright and poet

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
The UCL team’s findings are based on studies of other coronavirus outbreaks, such as the 2003 Sars epidemic. They concluded that school closures are most effective if a disease is not highly contagious and children are particularly vulnerable to it. Since neither of those is true of Covid-19, it should be treated differently. But critics say that the report does not include enough relevant data.
What do we not know?
How likely children are to pass the virus on to other people. Some experts believe that the more symptoms people show, the more infectious they are – and as children usually show very few symptoms, they are not very infectious at all. But with other viruses, such as colds and flu, children are often described as “super spreaders” because they come into contact with so many people at school and elsewhere.

Word Watch

Denmark
A northern European country, which includes more than 400 islands, and whose capital is Copenhagen.
Taiwan
An island off the south-east coast of China. After communist forces won control of China in 1949, their nationalist opponents retreated to Taiwan, which they named the Republic of China. Its capital is Taipei.
Norway
A northern European country, famous for its dramatic coastal scenery, which neighbours Sweden and is divided by sea from Denmark. Its capital is Oslo.
Welsh Education Minister
Each country within the UK has its own education policy, which is why a Welsh school might operate differently to a Scottish, Northern Irish or English one.
Kick-start
Get something moving quickly. The term comes from pushing hard on a pedal to start a motorbike.
Scenario
A possible situation.

Subjects

PDF Download

Please click on "Print view" at the top of the page to see a print friendly version of the article.