Revelation, not revolution
The lessons of the corona crisis in Denmark
Kevin Goggins, Head of Skt Josef’s International School, Denmark considers how the Danish experience of the pandemic may point the way to more lasting educational change.
It is the beginning of 2021 and fears of an uncontrollable winter wave and the mutated forms of coronavirus infections have prompted another period of school closure in Denmark. But unlike many other countries, Denmark has been able to maintain that face-to-face teaching for much of the last year and this is only the second asking of full school lockdown.
May 2020: teaching moves outdoors
And the first lockdown did not last long here. After an initial 3-week closure period in April 2020, Danish schools were back in session for primary classes. The priority during the gradual reopening of Danish schools had been getting the children outdoors as much as possible, as recommended by the Danish Health Authority and the Danish Ministry of Children and Education.
“The children will be spending much more time out of doors and fewer children assembled in the same area” (the Danish Health Authority)
When the teaching moved outside the classroom to the school’s outdoor areas or to the schools’ local communities, it resulted in a changed mindset of teaching – a revelation for many teachers who took the opportunities to use the environment actively during classes and as an augmentation to the learning.
Devolved decision making
The decision of when and how to reopen schools was made by the central government together with the Parliament. However, they allowed for municipal councils (similar to school districts in the U.S.) to develop their own plans, and school leaders and teachers to do the same for each individual school based on guidelines from the National Board of Health. This gave each school the autonomy to come up with it’s own operating plans to suit their own conditions and circumstances.
These guidelines included: (1) In the classroom, students must be seated at tables that are at least two meters apart; (2) students must handwash several times a day; and (3) all educational materials and equipment must be cleaned twice a day. In some schools, additional toilets and sinks were installed.
Central guidance, local decisions
Once the decision to reopen schools was made, a clear plan was put in place to prioritize the health and safety of students, educators, and families. Schools prohibited the usual morning assemblies, forbade food sharing, and introduced new preventative practices like staggered student arrivals and much more frequent cleaning and handwashing practices throughout the day. Where possible classes were divided into two to three smaller groups and, whenever possible, held outside.
To minimize the risk of contagion, many schools also reduced their number of hours or remained closed some days. In addition, any child, parent, or staff member who presented even minor symptoms did not attend school. In addition, other community resources were being tapped: community parks were now reserved for young children during school hours, and other buildings were made available to schools, including hotels, conference centres, museums, and libraries.
All eyes on Denmark
Much of the world looked at Denmark as a great example of how it was possible to reopen the schools, as these links for the UK and Canada show:
Now, as we move on into 2021 with the second period of lockdown to last at least 5 weeks here, teachers have to change their mindset again and discover new ways of teaching through remote learning, bringing with it a revelation through the use of technology. Teachers have managed to respond to the challenge in truly remarkable ways as they have around the world. In my view, however, this will not become the digital-based revolution that some had anticipated. Even the most passionate fans of digital teaching now find it hard to defend online teaching in its purest form. Children need to be physically in schools for so many reasons.
What revolution will come? The perspective from Denmark
We will learn from our experiences of Corona, but we should not expect a revolution in our school systems immediately. School development and reform, though much needed, takes time. There is also the issue that some aspects of continuity are at least as important as change, as lockdown has taught us.
A revolution requires a profound break with the past, strong pioneers to lead the way, and the right social conditions to lay the foundations. Some of this has been present during our experience of the pandemic. The potential for lasting change also needs to be present and while teaching virtually has worked out well, which is innovative in itself, for many it is currently only a temporary solution to a pressing need. It might become more common in some form as we move forward, but this does not in itself constitute a revolution.
Being part of the decision
However, there is hope that in the wake of the pandemic, the politicians and administrators will give teachers the time and freedom needed to develop teaching and learning themselves. We got a tantalising glimpse of this in May 2020 here in Denmark, when schools were not just told what to do, but asked to make decisions at a local level within a framework of guidelines and principles. If this provides a model for future decision making, we may all start taking a longer term view that allows us to embrace the benefits of the new, without losing what we previously have taken for granted in the past – being together in the same room.
Kevin Goggins is Head of Skt. Josef’s International School in Denmark. He has spent 7 years working in the international school sector, prior to which he spent several years as a Mathematics teacher in the UK.