Pandemic damage limitation is the new norm

In part two of our update on the effects of the pandemic on the countries we cover, we turn our attention to Sweden, Jersey and Wales.

Jersey

COVID-19 infection rates and deaths in Jersey have not been nearly as high as its two near neighbours, France and the UK.  However, their profile has followed a similar pattern, with a first peak in April and a second peak emerging in November and December last year, which is now in decline (see graph above). It is within this context that Doctor Lesley Stagg, Senior Adviser, sent us her latest report. 

She writes: “With Covid ratings dropping to just over 200 cases per 100,000 (the approximate Jersey population), Jersey has quickly scrambled down from its December high of more than 1,000 cases per 100,000 which was a figure most of us found shocking and could be traced back mainly to a couple of social events just before Christmas. This means that all children returned to school on January 11 and their education is once again sustainable in classrooms alongside their friends and teachers. However, supply teachers are like gold-dust and some schools are struggling to ensure cover when staff members are shielding, vulnerable or just have plain ‘flu. Online learning is well-established so we hope no child is lacking education time.

“Our Minister of Education resigned her post, partly because she didn’t consider it safe enough for pupils to return to school yet but was overruled by the Health Department, and her deputy has taken over as acting M of E until either he or another politician is selected by the Chief Minister for this important government post.

“For most children, school continues as normal.  Now the next hurdle will be decisions regarding exams for 16 and 18 year-olds.  For these, we await further information from Ofqual and the exam boards, subsequent to the survey results.  However, we plan to step up with moderation, especially in primary schools where there will have been no external assessment for two years.

“Finally, we have found a way to keep up the momentum of OLEVI programmes by going online via MS Teams, but it’s not as good or as engaging as facilitating in person!”

Sweden 

As can be seen from the graphs, Sweden’s deaths and new cases peaked in late December for a second time. This prompted The Lancet, on December 22 2020, to publish an article referring to the Swedish enigma (1).  The article started by reporting that the number of cases in Sweden far exceeded its Nordic neighbours. This difference it did not attribute to “variations in national cultures, histories, population sizes and densities, immigration patterns, the routes by which the virus was first introduced, or how cases and deaths are reported”.

Rather, it was related to the country’s COVID-19 strategy. It asserted that Sweden had adopted a herd immunity approach allowing the virus to spread relatively unchecked with recommendations on how to behave rather than compliance.  Testing, contact tracing, source identification and reporting were all low key. This in the authors’ view was an approach which reflected the culture which is one of working together and respecting individual freedoms rather than compliance.

This approach was not without its critics within the country. The Royal Swedish Academy recommended keeping a physical distance, wearing a face mask, keeping rooms ventilated, avoiding crowds, and practising good hand and respiratory hygiene.  All of which are considered norms in most other countries. 

However, with the latest surge in cases and deaths all this has changed.  The first move was for Stefan Lofven, the Swedish Prime Minister on December 3 to announce that high schools would switch to distance learning until early January.  Then, as the infection rates continued to rise, in mid December these recommendations have become regulations and with the COVID-19 vaccination programme expected to start in January, 2021. It is hoped the situation will improve rapidly.

(1)Mariam Claeson & Stefan Hanson, COVID-19 and the Swedish enigma, The Lancet, December 22, 2020, DOI:https://doi.org/10.1016/S0140-6736(20)32750-1

This change in approach seems, as our graphs show, to be having a positive impact with the number of cases and deaths declining significantly in January 2021. 

Mats Rosenkvist, CEO of Successful Schools Sweden presents his personal experience of events.  He writes that the Swedish authorities’ approach since the pandemic started has been to keep all play schools and schools open, apart from upper secondary schools and higher education which have been online since last spring.

To really try to stop the virus from spreading, most schools closed a few days earlier before Christmas and opened again about a week later than planned for the new year. In early January the Government also allowed secondary schools to close and go online, but only if the local situation with Covid is severe. In other words, schools are not to be closed as an overall precaution. 

The teachers’ unions are driving a debate about what precautions to take to safeguard teachers who are exposed in open schools. Not everyone is agreeing with the Government about the overall need to keep schools open.

The debate is also intensifying about the effect that the pandemic has on learning – a learning deficit is building up.

Wales

As can be seen from the graph above, the number of cases in Wales is in decline since a peak in mid-December, though they are still considerably higher than those reported in the first peak in April. The country has already tried to slow the spread with a firebreak in October and November and is now in total lockdown. 

Kirsty Williams, the Education Minister, said on January 21 that officials would be looking to prioritise some pupils’ return to class during the pandemic.  However, in the current conditions schools are set to remain closed, apart from for vulnerable children and those of key workers, until half-term unless Covid-19 rates fall significantly.

Wales, like the rest of the UK, is subject to considerable variations in cases from location to location (see the map below). So what is a national approach to education can have a modified effect on the ground. 

Our correspondent Simon Thompson, Deputy Headteacher / Dirpwy Bennaeth of Cardiff High School / Ysgol Uwchradd Caerdydd shares his experience with us. 

“In Wales, Christmas arrived with another full lockdown which commenced on December 19. As educators we once again find ourselves in the situation of a full stay-at-home order with all pupils in the system being educated remotely, until the end of Feb 2021 in the first instance. Unlike March 2020 schools, and ours in particular, were far more prepared for this possibility and at Cardiff High School we have been able to switch seamlessly to our home learning timetable for all year groups, which includes a blend of synchronous and asynchronous approaches. 

“Digital deprivation remains an important key barrier for some pupils, making it difficult for them to access the remote provision. Our local education authority has been planning for this and we are fortunate to have been provided with a large number of new devices, including laptops and Chromebooks which we have loaned to those families who have needed them. This is a key barrier which schools across the country are trying to overcome.

“Remote learning from home, where pupils have to rely far more on their own motivation, resilience and efforts compared to when they are in class with supportive teachers, widens the attainment gap between particular groups of learners. Therefore, in addition to our mix of live synchronous lessons and webinars using Google Meet through Google-Classrooms, we continue to carry out daily check-ins with pupils and targeted home phone calls to vulnerable learners and those with additional learning needs. 

“Schools are also running hub provision for vulnerable pupils and children of key workers, so those pupils continue to attend school where they are able to access support from staff alongside remote learning provision with their peers, and in some cases are following a more bespoke and suitable alternative provision tailored more to their needs. 

“Our staff are far more confident, skilled, and adept to providing remote learning and as a school, which always strives to learn and improve, our attention this term has also focused on how we can improve the learning experience for our pupils as we endeavour to review the experience of a blended learning model from the lens of a pupil. A focus on pedagogy in the classroom is something which all practitioners at Cardiff High School strive to develop, and this remains the case for the virtual classroom. We have established regular professional learning opportunities for colleagues across the school to continue to share best practice and learn from each other. Staff support, development and wellbeing remains a critical area which I believe school leaders need to prioritise during these most challenging of times.

I think this quote from Robert John Meeham sums up the importance of this: 

‘The most valuable resource that all teachers have is each other. Without collaboration our growth is limited to our own perspectives.’”

—————————————————————————————————————-

This concludes our latest lengthy global update. It comes at a time when the official number of deaths registered in the UK passed 100,000.  These tragic figures mean that few of us here have not been affected in our personal and professional lives by the pandemic and will continue to be so in the days and years to come. Our thoughts are with you all, especially those still physically working in our schools and colleges or who have experienced the effects of the virus on those they care for.

We would like to thank our correspondents who have as ever found the time to share their experiences with us.  The picture they all paint is at the moment quite bleak but with a glimmer of light on the distant horizon. Let’s hope that when we next hear from them, the new dawn has broken. 

Take care and stay safe 

George