Covid calls shots as countries adapt to contrasting strategies

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Sweden and Wales are at opposite ends of the spectrum when it comes to dealing with Covid-19, and the education authorities in each country have been forced to play the cards they have been dealt as best they can.

Global update part 2

Sweden

Amid a sharp rise in coronavirus infections in Sweden, the BBC quoted Stefan Löfven, the Prime Minister, as saying:  “We have a very serious situation…  we are going in the wrong direction”.  Sweden reported 31 Covid deaths on Friday 6 November, taking the death toll to 5,969 – far higher than its neighbours. Unlike them, Sweden has never imposed a nationwide lockdown and Government recommendations do not have to be followed. As a result, internationally Sweden is viewed as treading its own path through the pandemic. 

In early September, the Government reported that cases had dropped substantially, to the point where things could return to normal. Now, however, they seem to be heading in the opposite direction. As our graph shows, cases have risen rapidly. In response to this data, stricter limits have been introduced in three areas. These include avoiding public transport and non-essential shopping and not meeting in groups larger than eight in cafes and restaurants.  As a result, about 70 per cent of the country’s 10.5 million people now live under the new Government guidelines, though in line with the previous approach, these are voluntary.  Responsible citizenship remains a requirement in Sweden.

Mats Rosenkvist, CEO of Successful Schools Sweden, reminds us that since the pandemic started last spring, all schools have remained open in Sweden – with the exception of upper secondary and higher education.  They have carried out online teaching and learning, which has continued through the summer holidays. This autumn, upper secondary pupils also returned to school but with new routines including a weekly in-out rota system for pupils in some year groups, where they alternate between school one week and homeschooling the next.

As with elsewhere, schools are struggling to manage the impact of the growing number of pupils and parents self-isolating when they experience symptoms of the virus.  With the new and stricter regional recommendations, the teacher unions are now demanding clearer recommendations for education and schools.  This is a situation which is only likely to become more acute as the winter progresses. 

Wales

Wales emerged from its 17 day firebreak lockdown on November 9, just as England enters its second lockdown. Unlike with England, their lockdown was timed  to coincide with the autumn half-term. As with England, the  lockdown was designed to prevent the health service in Wales becoming overwhelmed.  The number of patients in Welsh hospitals with coronavirus is now the highest since the peak of the pandemic in April. 

Public Health Wales reported  a total of 2,101 cases reported by schools, with all secondaries in some council areas affected and almost 700 schools overall recording at least one Covid-19 infection.

As the lockdown ends, cases of the virus are higher than when the lockdown started and one of the highest in the UK. Yet there are signs that the lockdown did have a positive impact, with rates levelling off. 

As with other parts of  the United Kingdom Wales is still experiencing local swings in cases which may well require specific intervention. Mark Drakeford, First Minister of Wales, recognised that The restrictions people have had to live with are incredibly difficult and demanding, and everybody is tired and fatigued of coronavirus”  However, while the “firebreak” had given the country a pathway through to Christmas, the likelihood is that they would require another similar break in the new year to control the future spread of the virus.  

The Welsh firebreak lockdown has just finished, but primary, special  and secondary school pupils in Years 7 and 8 returned to class on November 2.  This was the end of the ‘normal’ half-term break. The remainder of the students returned after the lockdown. With the virus still not under control, education policy changes in education have become quite the norm. On November 10, the Welsh Government announced that A level and GCSE final exams are to be scrapped for 2021, to be replaced with classroom assessments. 

Our colleagues at Cardiff High School are  in an area with a high number of cases. This presents considerable challenges and a potentially high level of disruption.  Their professional response to this can be seen in their November 6 newsletter to year 7 and 8 students.  In this they provided detailed instructions on how parents should respond when their child is sick or absent from school as a result of the virus. They draw attention to the success of their blended learning platform. As Simon Thompson, Deputy Head Teacher has reported before to ensure the continuity of their students’ learning, they have invested heavily in this platform and it is now reaping its rewards. 

In the school’s responses to the uncertainty created by the spread of the virus it is good to see some things remain the same.  The newsletter finishes with a reminder that standards of student appearance are to remain high. Thus, students are expected in the winter to wear a school pullover and blazer. Hoodies are certainly not allowed.  Our colleagues in Sweden and Quebec please take note. 

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We hope you have found it interesting to reflect on the current impact of the pandemic in each country we report upon and how the education is provided by the staff in our schools.  We started each section by describing the general situation and trends for public health and the resulting political climate and in some cases the economic responses to it. This has contributed to emphasising the point we made in our blogs of October 21 and 30 that education and thus school improvement sits within an ever changing political, economic and health dynamic. 

The picture illustrates that the majority of the countries are preparing for a winter of increased cases and possibly increased restrictions.  Schools are at the forefront of policy and in some cases they are being forced to open when certain evidence might suggest they should close.  That is all apart from in Dubai, where life appears to be slowly returning to a new normal. However, with the news that a vaccine could have been discovered, let’s hope the gloom that has descended upon us all starts to lift soon.  

As always, we would like to thank our contributors and we welcome any comments you may have.  

Take care and stay safe

George