A Maltese parent in a Danish school: a new normal in the COVID school return

Denmark was the first European country to reopen schools in April after a month on lockdown. Antoinette Casha, a mother-of-two, talks to KURT SANSONE about the Danish school experience under the shadow of COVID-19

Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen (R) speaks with pupils as she participates in the reopening of Lykkebo School in Valby in Copenhagen on April 15, 2020
Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen (R) speaks with pupils as she participates in the reopening of Lykkebo School in Valby in Copenhagen on April 15, 2020

Schools in Malta were shut in March but with the COVID-19 pandemic under control, government is planning to lift restrictions on child care centres and summer schools.

They will be the first educational facilities to reopen after almost three months of closure and the health authorities have warned that this does not, in fact, signal a retun to complete normality.

Mitigation measures are currently being discussed between health professionals and the educational authorities to minimise the risk of virus infection for children and workers.

How the new child care facilities and SkolaSajf programmes will look is anybody’s guess at this stage. But it’s worth bearing in mind that Malta will not actually be attempting the entirely unprecedented.

Denmark was the first European country to reopen schools on 15 April after a one-month lockdown. Phase One saw the country reopen schools and day-care facilities for children aged between 2 and 12, with the second phase kicking in last week.

And research by the Danish health authorities has now revealed that reopening of schools did not worsen the pandemic, as many had feared.

But to understand the Danish experience I spoke to Antoinette Casha, a Maltese mother-of-two, who lives in Denmark.

“Parents were split on the matter when schools reopened and many were afraid of sending their children to school,” she tells me over Messenger.

The reason underpinning the reopening of schools in Denmark was primarily economic, she explains.

“The government here wanted to offer parents the possibility of returning to work, or at least be more productive if working from home,” she says.

The initial trepidation, especially at a time when the pandemic was still raging in other countries, soon subsided. “We felt that somehow things were under control and could trust that schools were following regulations. I’d say it went very smoothly.”

She says that in the first phase, classes were split in two, to create enough space for desks to be placed 2m apart.

However, children were then divided into smaller groups of not more than three to work and play together when inside the classroom. Outside, groups of up to six students could play together. One or two teachers were assigned to each class.

Casha says most of the lessons were held outdoors, with children taking a folding chair or picnic blanket to sit on.

Parents were not allowed to enter the school premises and children had to wait in a queue to wash their hands upon arrival.

Casha says that in the second phase that started last Monday, the older students in secondary were allowed back to school. These had continued with online learning over the past five weeks.

However, in the second phase social distancing measures have also been relaxed. Desks are now 1m apart and classes back to their normal complement.

“Students are now back in the same room with their classmates and can play with all their friends during break-time, although they are encouraged to keep 1m distance between them,” Casha says.

Admittedly, the situation was a bit tougher for kindergarten and childcare centres to manage, given the very young age of children that attend these institutions.

She says children were placed into smaller groups and only allowed to play with designated boxes of toys to avoid cross contamination. “All toys were washed and disinfected when the centres closed,” she adds.

The social distancing measures introduced in the first phase necessitated the recruitment of more teachers to take care of the additional classes.

“They recruited young teachers, who are normally used to fill in whenever teachers are sick. Teachers are not allowed to switch classes, which means that some students are becoming experts in Danish, others in English, others in maths,” she tells me with a smiley accompanying the message.

“As a parent, I feel my child was more productive and learning while he was at home. But, on the other hand, at school he is with his friends and I can focus on my own work. At home, we do some extra school work to make up for the shortfall,” she says.

It is only now in Phase Two that a semblance of normality is returning. School opening times, which were reduced to between 8am and 4pm during phase one, are now back to what they were before (6:45am-5:15pm) and children have returned to their respective classrooms.

Casha says that her children miss the normal routine. “It is really a return to a new normal because things are not the same but at the very least they get to meet their friends,” she says, hopeful the pandemic will soon pass.

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