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Teachers in the front line in the fight against the spread of infection

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It was individual teachers and schools who in practice had to take responsibility for keeping schools open when the pandemic struck. Meanwhile, the vital function that schools have for the whole of society was made apparent. This were findings from a review of how Sweden kept schools open in the first few months of the pandemic.

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Porträtt på Sverker Lindblad.
Sverker Lindblad.

“Sweden was one of a very few countries that never closed their schools,” says Sverker Lindblad, professor emeritus of education. “Even when our neighbours closed their schools, we kept our pre-school and compulsory schools open. That was partly because there were several parties involved in the decision and partly because schools have a number of other roles in society over and above providing teaching. This became clear during the pandemic.”

Along with research colleagues at the University of Gothenburg, Lindblad has reviewed and analysed the decisions and measures taken in relation to the coronavirus epidemic in spring last year. The decision to keep compulsory schools open was made for several reasons: children and young people were not seen as drivers of infection; pre-schools and schools were essential for enabling parents working in essential services to go to work; and pre-schools and schools have a very important social function for children and young people.

“Schools are social institutions,” says Lindblad. “A school building is a place where teaching takes place, but also a place where children and young people meet their friends, develop social skills and eat lunch. These are things that cannot be replaced by remote learning. This has become clear during the pandemic and is something we have to some extent forgotten both in research and in the general debate.”

Several parties worked together

Several parties were involved in the decisions taken about pre-schools and compulsory schools during the coronavirus pandemic, including the government, the Public Health Agency of Sweden, the Swedish National Agency for Education and organiser of schools.

“To make it work, these parties had to listen to and trust one another. The system of independent agencies and a decentralised education system is unique to Sweden.”

The Public Health Agency of Sweden was responsible for medical expertise and the Swedish National Agency for Education contributed by issuing instructions and supporting schools. But in practice it was organiser of schools, and in particular individual schools and teachers, who had the task of taking the actions necessary to keep the schools open. For example, they had to educate pupils in maintaining good hygiene, ensure that children with symptoms were kept at home, offer remote teaching to children who could not go to school, make sure that children kept at home by worried parents did go to school, and more.

“Teachers ended up in the front line of the Swedish coronavirus strategy. They found themselves placed between the state and the citizens and it was teachers who had to take responsibility for the actions needed to keep the schools open.”

The principles of the strategy are fixed

The study is based on the decisions and events that played out in spring 2020. But the principles of the Swedish coronavirus strategy remain the same.

“The Swedish strategy adapts according to how the pandemic develops,” says Lindblad. “But it’s my perception that the basis of the strategy is fixed, i.e. we decide what to do by weighing medical, social and psychological assessments. Expertise in just one area is not enough to manage the crisis being created by Covid-19.”

The research group is now undertaking a comparative analysis of how eight countries handled the closing and opening of their schools during the pandemic.

In education we trust

The article “In education we trust: on handling the COVID-19 Pandemic in the Swedish welfare state” is written by Sverker Lindblad, Anders Lindqvist, Caroline Runesdotter and Gun-Britt Wärvik at the the University of Gothenburg.

It is published in Zeitschrift für Erziehungswissenschaft.