Unlike many other countries, Sweden never imposed a nationwide closure of schools for under-16s at any point during the coronavirus pandemic, but upper secondary schools moved to distance teaching in mid-March.
This week, tens of thousands of schoolchildren across the country, including those aged over 16, are now preparing to return to school as the summer draws to an end and the autumn semester gets under way.
More than 70 parents responded to a new survey by The Local asking international parents how they felt about the start of the school year. A total of 46.5 percent said they thought Sweden's decision to keep schools open for under-16s was the right call, and 40.8 percent said it was the wrong call. The remainder said they did not know.
Nearly everyone who responded to the survey, which was not scientific, had primary or nursery school-age children.
“During the first weeks of the pandemic we were so worried and didn't send our kids to school for more than a month. But then we checked with the school we were surprised to see all kids in my daughter's class who is eight were actually at school. So we started. Now we feel calmer as they were at school already at worse times of the pandemic,” said a Gothenburg-based dad-of-two from Turkey, who believed Sweden had made the wrong call.
“If the system was implementing safe practices, masks, social distancing, regular sanitising, staff isolation, and testing, I would feel a lot better,” said an American father whose two children attend nursery school in Gothenburg. “Given the complete lack of precautions and the complete failure to recognise that children and staff both carry and transmit the virus, often with no symptoms, and mandatory testing is non-existent makes me super nervous, even angry at the reckless lack of concern for our kids, our families, and our communities.”
Swedish health authorities have argued that data so far indicate that children and schools are associated with low risk of transmission, that keeping schools open is essential for parents in key jobs and that the social and educational impact on children of closing schools would be too harmful to make up for any benefits.
The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, on the other hand, has said there is conflicting published evidence on the impact of school closures or re-openings on community transmission, but that observational data from some countries suggest that schools are not associated with large spread of infection.
But we are still learning about the new coronavirus every day, and many parents told The Local they were struggling with conflicted feelings about sending their children back to school in Sweden this autumn.
'I am worried, to be honest'
“A bit worried, but it is good for children to attend school and play and learn with friends,” said Shreevalli Subramanya from India, a mother-of-two in Västerås. “Staying at home makes them dull and may affect their physiological developments. I hear from my kids that schools are taking a lot of precautions like maintaining distance, other parents not being allowed inside the school, washing their hands frequently etc, and it's good to hear that and kind of reassuring. Also, kids staying at home is kind of challenging as a parent for me to work.”
“We are worried about sending our kid to school after a long pause,” said another Indian reader in Sweden, a father of two primary and nursery school age children. “No idea what's in store if all the schools open at once. We have risk-group elders at home. We fear kids can be passive transmitters of the virus.”
“I do not feel overly worried; however, looking at strict measures in other countries makes me a bit nervous, as we are not nearly there in comparison,” said Lund-based Saba Wallace from Pakistan, who added that as a single parent she would have struggled to navigate work and childcare had Sweden decided to close schools.
“I am worried, to be honest, but we have realised that you can not keep kids at home for too long,” said Sadia, a Gothenburg-based reader from Pakistan. “I observed a very clingy and aggressive behaviour in my kid while we were having her home. We have to learn to live with the virus.”
“I am positive about sending my daughter back to school. Back in March, I was concerned about the fact that schools didn't close when we expected them to, and so she didn't attend fritids (after-school activities) for a while – just school – but we soon realised that things were going fine, and it is now just normal for us that she continues to go to school,” said Sarah, a British reader in Uppsala and mother-of-two.
“I have great confidence in her school – they are taking the same approach to corona that they take towards everything else: common sense, in line with regulations, and with pupil and teacher well-being at the heart of what they do. I also think it's good for children's mental health to be in school, that's a big part of the overall picture,” she added.
“I'm so happy the schools have stayed open,” said Emily from New York, mother-of-two. “Although my oldest is aware of corona it has impacted her in smaller ways than friends of mine in other countries and I'm very glad of that. With the schools open I feel she can still have some normalcy and childhood during this crazy time.”
More flexibility and transparency
Several parents called for more flexibility on Sweden's part. Sweden does not permit home-schooling, and some readers who kept their children at home during the spring term have previously told The Local that they received letters warning them that their local authority could fine them if they did not send their children to school.
“I am worried and angry. Last March coronavirus swept through my son's school. He came home sick, then gave it to both me and my husband. I'm in a risk group and now I'm long-term sick with Covid-19,” said Laura Karlsson, an American whose 10-year-old attends school in Linköping, who added that many other students as well as teachers at her son's school had been ill during the peak of the outbreak back in March and April.
“I do not want to risk my son going to school but Sweden gives me no choice. As it did back in April when we were threatened to send our son back when I was told to quarantine by the doctor. It's a ridiculous and dangerous situation,” she added.
Sweden's Education Minister Anna Ekström and Public Health Agency director-general Johan Carlson. Photo: Fredrik Sandberg/TT
“From a country's perspective, it looks good and targets general welfare, but not so good from an individual's perspective, especially those like me who have children with low immunity and generally prone to sickness,” said Sukhendu, an Indian father-of-one. “So, flexibility should have been an option here. I personally won't discourage a parent who wants to send their child to school but would definitely stand for parents who don't want to either.”
The Swedish government introduced temporary legislation that gave schools greater decision-making powers to introduce online teaching or allow students following health and safety recommendations to stay at home. But some survey respondents argued that schools should be obligated to offer for example online teaching.
“Online teaching should be available as an option should you need it and parents should be allowed to home-school temporarily if they apply,” said Sheila, a mother-of-three from Ireland.
“I'm scared and although I think schools can be open, I think there needs to be much more regulation,” said an Italian mother-of-one. She suggested: “1) Parents should not be forced to send their kids to school if they have people at risk at home, 2) if anybody is sick in the household, kids should stay home too, 3) teachers need to be allowed to self-isolate if they are at risk.”
Some parents also called for increased transparency. Schools are obligated to report outbreaks to infectious disease authorities, but there are no laws stating that they have to disclose it to parents – and some chose not to. Health confidentiality laws additionally prevent schools from disclosing the identity of the person who is infected.
Linda Pettersson, a Swedish-American mum-of-one, asked: “I feel if the school can send a letter and email informing parents their child had been exposed to head lice, then why can they not also inform parents their child has been exposed to a Covid-19 infected staff member or student?”