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OPINION: I believe Sweden will regret its approach to Covid in schools

Sweden's Covid-19 strategy for schools is complex, but nonchalant attitudes and a lack of systematic protection for schoolchildren can only be described as irresponsible, argues Lisa Bjurwald in this opinion piece.

OPINION: I believe Sweden will regret its approach to Covid in schools
File photo of a schoolchild in Sweden. Photo: Lars Pehrson/SvD/TT

In the US, liberal news media are reporting with horror that several Republican-led states will penalise schools that require masks. This despite the number of infected children soaring, not least in Republican states such as Florida and Texas, and despite leading public health experts including the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommending universal indoor masking in schools this year.

In Swedish schools, you’d be hard-pressed to find any measures at all, if you don’t count a few bottles of sanitiser here and there and (at least in some schools, and at least in the first months of the pandemic) extra spacious seating in the dining halls. Masks have never been mandatory or even socially accepted herecertainly not in the classrooms. Yet this school year, närundervisning (in-school teaching, or literally “close teaching”) will replace distance learning.

Instructions to schools from the Public Health Agency of Sweden are meek and, just as the Swedish pandemic strategy as a whole, based on recommendations”, advice”, “suggestions” and the like, rather than mandatory rules. If possible, work in smaller groups [than usual],” and so on.

On August 12th, the Public Health Agency and The Swedish National Agency for Education (Skolverket) announced that the possibility of preventive distance learning has been removed. This in the face of renewed spread and mutated strains. As opposed to neighbouring countries Finland and Denmark, Sweden hasn’t lowered the recommended vaccine age to include children, instead sticking with 16 years of age (thus excluding the entire elementary school system).

To some parents, foreign and Swedish-born alike, this idea of business as usual is a relief. Not that they don’t care about their children’s well-being, but rather that the unique Swedish approach to Covid-19 has allowed for young school-aged children to live normal lives during a potentially frightening global crisis.

Many of us who have friends and family abroad know what a toll regular school closings and futile attempts at homeschooling have taken on parents and pupils alike. I have close friends in London who were all nearly having a nervous breakdown at different times during the past year, their young, hyper-energetic broods literally climbing the walls” (as we say in Sweden) out of frustration.

On the other side of these walls, mums and dads were trying and failing to have serious job conversations over Skype. It would have been funny for a week or two, a story to tell the grandchildren, but months on end, with no end in sight? No wonder European psychiatric helplines have nearly crashed from the number of desperate callers.

But there’s also a group of Sweden-based parents increasingly worried about the country’s lax attitude towards Covid-19, not least in the classrooms. As the new Delta variant of the virus is dominating the spread, and infection rates are increasing in major cities like Stockholm, anxiety is brewing over the return to schools this week.

MORE BY LISA BJURWALD:

The message from the Swedish government and Public Health Agency has consistently been that kids don’t get sick from the coronavirus. But reports of Long Covid in children tell a different story. While children fortunately end up in hospital emergency units very rarely, they can develop the same debilitating post-Covid symptoms as adults, including extreme tiredness, recurring fever spells, and frightening cognitive symptoms like brain fog” with difficulties focusing.

No one knows how long Long Covid lasts. Tens of thousands of those infected in the spring of 2020 around the globe are still suffering from the after-effects. The WHO has acknowledged post-Covid as a global health concern. Networks and organisations for the affected have been set up, clinical research initiated. But the Swedish response has been gruellingly slow, particularly in comparison with countries such as the United Kingdom, where a heap of special post-Covid clinics has been set up to care for the ill.

A recent report from the Swedish Children’s Ombudsman studied the consequences of Covid-19 on children’s rights and found that a surprising number of Swedish children are suffering from severe, life-altering post-Covid symptoms. I write in-depth in Swedish about the report here.

The fact that children can be negatively affected physically by the virus puts the Swedish pandemic school strategy – or lack thereof – in a different light.

A measured, fact-based response is preferable to a gut reaction driven by fear and/or populism, as seen across the world since the outbreak early last year. If children could neither get infected nor spread the potentially deadly disease, schools could pretty much be exempt from preventive measures.

But now, a year and a half into the Covid-19 pandemic, science tells us differently. Children can both spread the virus to vulnerable family members – especially with the sneakier Delta variant – and suffer severe post-Covid symptoms themselves, even if the infection itself was mild.

With this knowledge in mind, the lack of protection for our youngest citizens and the nonchalant attitudes from those in power cannot be described as anything else but irresponsible. I believe that this will be a major issue of regret and reckoning for Sweden in the post-pandemic years.

Lisa Bjurwald is a Swedish journalist and author covering current affairs, culture and politics since the mid-1990s. Her latest work BB-krisen, on the Swedish maternity care crisis, was dubbed Best reportage book of 2019 by Aftonbladet daily newspaper. She is also an external columnist for The Local – read her columns here.

Member comments

  1. Cobbler, stick to your trade.
    Sweden is one of the few countries not overreacting. The only scientific fact they do not follow is using an experimental vaccine product on adolescents, whose immune system still evolves. Disclaimer: i am pro vax.

  2. Stop your fear propaganda that mostly has to rely one words like “could”, “would” and “maybe”.
    The real damage to the well-being of children can be observed clearly in other lockdown and vaccination-enthusiastic countries.
    Sweden is doing absolutely right!
    Help to keep our children healthy – not just with respect to “maybe” COVID but also to all other dimensions of physical and mental health.

    1. I fully agree and also take a look at the ema register. Per end of June we have in 6 month more than 160000 cases of serious vaccination effects, i.e that are those causing hospitalisation and remaining damages and over 20000 deaths in the EU. I wouldn’ call that a solution to the problem. While it is obvious by simply valueing the figures that young people and espially children don’t have a problem and please stop the nonsense with so called ling covid.

  3. I am proVAX and I disrespect Tegnell. His initial plan of spreading the virus to distribute the disease was meaningful in a scenario where no vaccine would have been on the horizon for the next, say, 5 years. We had a vaccine in less than a year. Tegnell did absolutley nothing to mitigate the spread in public spaces (transport, supermarkets …) where the simple use of a surgical mask could reduce the spread, is adopted almost everywhere in Europe, and is recommended by WHO. Folkhälsomyndigheten does not even contemplate the use of this simple “device”. Even traveling by plane is a funny experience: signs everywhere to wear masks, and at least 30% of the people wearing no masks at the terminals, and even inside the plane, not even the stewards. Why? because nobody explained that a mask does not save your ass, it protects the others.I found this really … disappointing for a country that praises itself as a champion of social consideration, in this case towards the one who cannot vaccinate. I read on this line that last winter a kid in Stockholm was sent home because he was wearing a mask at school. This is a blatant violation of his individual liberty: was he hurting someone? no. But he was probably sending the “wrong message” to his schoolmates. Having said that Sweden, having probably 5x the number of casualties of Denmark, is not doing too bad, considering that they haven t practiced any lock-down for example: but this is possible because (A) we have a lot of space, (B) Sweden is a very beautiful country but not a tourist magnet, and I mean it.

    1. I sympathize with your argumentation but would like to point out that you operate under the assumption that the vaccines are sterilizing, i.e. wipe out the infection. The end goal of all vaccine trials was to reduce burden on the healthcare system. As such significant reduction of middle to severe covid cases was chosen as the goal. The vaccines work wonders with regard to that but do not protect from transmitting the virus. Israel, ahead of all other countries, shows it clearly to us: a variant emerges that has higher virus titer in general and equal titer in nasal swaps of vaccinated and naive population.

      To long did not read: the virus is here to stay and no vaccine will change that. Swedens strategy had not to be adapted.

  4. totally disagree with this article. I’ve seen the terrible mental health problems from kids wearing masks etc in the US. Keep it as normal for the kids as possible!!

    1. If this article had been written one year earlier, then possibly people could still reasonably believe it. However in September 2021 there is overwhelming evidence that the Swedish response, which was amongst the least authoritarian in the world, has been superior from every single vantage point.

      Israel, Australia and New Zealand implemented the exact opposite strategies and there is no metric that shows they have performed better than Sweden.

      I would like to see this author’s corporate ties. Perhaps she would be willing to share them with her audience?

      Sweden won.

  5. Also, don’t compare Sweden’s numbers only to the Nordics to make a point. Compared to the rest of Europe, Sweden has done tremendously well without much restrictions, and will be better off in the long term

  6. Lisa …I think you may well have a valid argument here. What do other readers think will happen in schools this winter? I am not optimistic that the situation is being addressed at all. What frustrates me the most is not only aren’t basic protective mensures in place in schools , but it’s as if Delta doesn’t even exist! I agree that masks all day for kids is miserable and a vaccine for over 12’s is controversial to say the least. But please Sweden let’s be proactive and accept what’s coming and do something to at least minimise the blow. Although not ideal (and I’m certainly not a fan) home school may be the only temporary solution going forward. I don’t have the answers but I think Lisa is right to question the lax attitude towards what we know will be a highly contagious virus being spread among the unvaccinated. Long covid can’t be brushed off and for any child to suffer long term would be an unfair consequence of the ’nonchalant’ attitude of those in power, and dare I say like minded parents.

    1. I understand your worries but think they have to be kept in balance with other damages.
      I live in Germany and can see the tremendous REAL physical and psychological damage to children caused by “homeschooling” (which actually was more a joke than any school!), masks in schools and alike.
      It’s not just wearing masks, it’s letting all decisions and behaviors be driven be plain FEAR about POSSIBLE/EVENTUAL effects which is the problem.
      Sweden is well adviced not to let this happen and better first see what really happens instead of over-reacting on very blurred maybes and thereby causing a lot more real harm.
      Stay calm and confident, enjoy life, relax and keept moving/exercising. This will contribute to everybodies health a lot more than masks, isolation and experimental medicine.

      1. I agree with much of your well grounded reply. We need to learn to live with covid and home schooling should only be a last resort if the situation spirals out of control – which of course I hope it doesn’t. But the wait and see approach doesn’t cut it for me. Just take a look at what’s happening in the US right now. Cases among kids are rising fast in the face of Delta and more children are ending up in hospital. The American Academy of Pediatrics said it – This is not last year’s covid…kids are going to be affected the most. To quote a recent Local article ”masks, covid jabs, tests and ventilation” this is how German children are returning to school. In Sweden we have none of that. Over reaction is damaging …under reaction is just as damaging.

  7. My UK school was Victorian and violent. I would have loved an opportunity (like Covid) to learn from home, over a computer, and could learn far more left undisturbed to read, rather than wasting time in their classrooms. Swedish schools might be more moderate, but some kids actually benefit from staying at home and not having to sit with bullies all day long.

    1. Dear Alastair,
      So sorry to hear that. I know there’s widespread bullying in Swedish schools, too (no country is spared, I presume), yet the media coverage here tends to focus on the pupils suffering from distance learning rather than a balanced reporting, which would include experiences similar to yours. Thus, valuable input! Thank you very much for commenting.
      Best, Lisa B.

  8. Have read all of your interesting comments above; thank you for taking part in the discussion! Face masks for kids are too restrictive, in my point of view. Homeschooling obviously not a long-term option. But the Delta mutation IS a cause for concern, and long covid cannot be brushed off. Certainly not an easy question, many aspects to take into consideration… Best, Lisa B.

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SCHOOLS

How does Swedish school chain IES attract teachers and parents?

Dozens of disgruntled teachers have contacted The Local to complain about the Swedish school chain IES, but it still attracts a lot of teachers and parents. We asked two senior staff at the school to explain the appeal.

How does Swedish school chain IES attract teachers and parents?

Every year, Pascal Brisson, the Principal of IES Sundsvall, arguably the flagship of the Swedish free school chain IES, heads back to his native Canada to go on a recruitment drive. 

He visits his old alma mater, the University of Ottawa, and then moves on to universities everywhere from Vancouver on Canada’s west coast to Halifax in Nova Scotia, visiting careers fairs, meeting careers advisors, and networking with the university’s education departments. 

“Canada has been very successful for us, especially in northern Sweden, because the culture and climate are very similar to what we find in Canada. So they tend to adapt quite quickly here. They’re away from home, but they’re still not that far away from home. At just my school here, we probably have, without exaggerating, at least 35 Canadians.” 

Richard Barwell, dean of the University of Ottawa’s education faculty, has even visited Brisson’s school. 

“They stay here for a long time, and this has led, through word of mouth, to the universities knowing about us and recommending us,” Brisson continues. 
 
IES Sundsvall Principal Pascal Brisson takes a photograph of himself outside his school.

 
IES Sundsvall Principal Pascal Brisson takes a photograph of himself outside his school. Photo: Pascal Brisson

Brisson is not the only IES school principal involved in recruitment. Bringing over young, newly qualified teachers from the English-speaking world is at the very core of the chain’s business model. 

Julie Kelly, Principal of IES Länna, does the same job for the US, visiting her alma mater, the University of Minnesota, and other US universities.

Robb Cayford, Principal of IES Umeå, handles the recruitment of teachers from his native UK, as well as from Ireland. 

As The Local reported last month, many of the newly graduated teachers who decide to come to work for IES in Sweden end up regretting their decision, complaining of low pay compared to Swedish colleagues, being asked to work more hours than they should, and being given extra responsibilities without extra pay. 

But according to Brisson, these disgruntled teachers are in a minority. 

“The danger in any organisation that has 3,300 employees, is that you’re going to find people that have had a bad experience,” he says. 

“If you dig around, you’ll find hundreds and hundreds of teachers that love IES. Of course, you’ll always find a few that are negative, but the majority love it here.”

Pupils at IES's school in Täby back in 2010.

Pupils at IES’s school in Täby back in 2010. Photo: Pontus Lundahl/TT

Brisson claims that teachers at IES enjoy better conditions and more rapid career progression than they could hope for in Canada, at the same time as having a bit of an adventure. 

“They want to experience something abroad, but most of them don’t want to experience the culture shock extreme of going to Asia or Africa, so then Europe becomes something that is very safe,” he says of the appeal. “In Sweden, everybody speaks English, so they can communicate, and it’s a country that runs well.” 

In addition, he says, years spent teaching in Sweden count with school employers back in Canada in a way a posting in Africa might not. 

“You don’t park your life, because you are a regular teacher, you can go back and they’ll recognise your years of experience, and the pension will follow you.” 

Annie Rowland, a Canadian who runs after-school activities at IES Sundsvall and who has accompanied Brisson on recruitment trips, says that starting out as a teacher in Canada can be frustratingly slow. 

“The teaching situation in Canada isn’t all that lucrative. You start off by being a vikarie (a substitute teacher or teacher on a short-term contract) for several years,” she says. “There’s a lot of bureaucracy… and then you end up with schools filled with crappy teachers who have put in their time.” 

At IES, she has gained a lot of responsibility at just 27 years old. 

“As a new teacher fresh out of teachers’ college, to come here and have full-time work is pretty cool. You don’t have that opportunity in Canada,” she explains. “The way we operate is that the good teachers are rewarded and are praised, and that creates a culture in the school where people want to work harder. I don’t think I’ll ever go back to a school in Canada.” 

Read all The Local’s articles about IES and schools in Sweden:

The teachers The Local spoke to last month complained that IES teachers tended to leave quickly and get replaced by other new recruits, meaning students often had to deal with a succession of new teachers each year of their education.

But Brisson said that at his school at least teachers tended to stay for at least three or four years, with many staying for much longer. 

IES Sundsvall has, however, a very good reputation within the chain. Some of the newer IES schools, based near the poorer suburbs of Swedish cities, or in smaller cities and towns which have a more challenging mix of students, have perhaps a more rapid turnover of teachers and bigger problems giving students a quality education. 

Brisson says that the key to his school’s success is the length of time he and the rest of the leadership team have been in place, and also in the autonomy he is given by the chain’s management. 

“I think it’s the leadership team: we’ve been here for 13 years working together,” he explains. “I think civility is important. We have very good routines. And we’ve built a culture that I think has functioned extremely well.” 

As a principal, what he enjoys about working within IES is the high level of freedom he is given over how he runs his school. 

“I’ve been given a clear description of what we should deliver, and then I’m given the liberty to be able to structure it in a way that delivers this, and that part for me is incredible,” he continues. “Our school has delivered for 13 years, so this autonomy comes from the fact that we’ve delivered.  At a municipal school, I think you have the same responsibility, but you don’t have the same autonomy.” 

Pupils at IES's school in Täby back in 2010.

Pupils at IES’s school in Täby back in 2010. Photo: Pontus Lundahl/TT

The Local also spoke to Annakarin Johansson Sandman, the chain’s head of academics, and the former principal at IES Liljeholmen, to try to better understand how the chain uses the flexibility that comes with being a free school, schools that are funded by the government but operated independently.

She said that the chain tried to use the flexibility built into the Swedish curriculum to challenge students harder than what tends to be the norm at municipal schools.

“In the school law it states that all schools need to be able to challenge all students on all levels, so even if students can easily reach the knowledge requirements that they should reach, they need to be guided and stimulated to be able to learn more and develop further,” she explained.

“Part of our ethos is that we talk about high academic expectations,” she continued. “The research says that you have to be challenged in order to learn, you have to be a bit uncomfortable and feeling that you are wobbling a little bit.”

Normally, she claimed, this was done by differentiating the tasks given to students in the same classroom, using different textbooks for the more advanced students, or setting them different exercises. But in special circumstances, she said, extremely advanced students might be allowed to join classes of a higher year group.

IES schools also have a different approach to discipline and competition than is standard in Swedish municipally-run schools, she explained, with a more traditional structure of classroom management, and a greater use of competition as a motivating force.

“I do think there’s more, you know, recognition of hard work,” she said. “We reward ‘grit’. We talk a lot about grit and hard work and putting in the effort in we recognise when that hard work is put in.”

Some schools have instituted a Harry Potter-style house system, with different houses competing for points.

“It’s a fun competition that also helps your learning, so you have students from years 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 and 9 in the same house, which means you get to know students from another year group, and then you might, you know, compete with your house together during sports day, or maybe during a theme week, like a language week.”

As head of academics, Johansson Sandman is ultimately responsible for overseeing teachers’ grading. Several of the IES teachers who contacted The Local last month said that they had been pressured to change students’ grades and even had grades changed by management behind their back.

She stressed that the individual teachers should always have the final say over the grades their students were given.

“Academic managers are not empowered to change the grades because it’s a decision for the teacher,” she said.

“But of course, you can always have a discussion if you see that a student hasn’t been given enough opportunities and so on because the Swedish school law states that students must be given a lot of chances and support to reach the grade.”

The best thing, she said, would be to bring in a new grading system where national tests are graded anonymously by teachers at other schools.

“I do think that it would be great if there was external moderation and grade setting to make sure that an ‘A’ in Malmö is the same as an ‘A’ in Stockholm, and also whether it’s a free school or a municipality school.”

It would also help end the uncertainty over whether IES schools are actually delivering a better education.

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