In Denmark, the rarest of sights amid coronavirus outbreak: Classrooms full of students

Elementary school children sit at desks spaced apart in Logumkloster, Denmark, on April 16, 2020.
Elementary school children sit at desks spaced apart in Logumkloster, Denmark, on April 16, 2020.PHOTO: NYTIMES

LOGUMKLOSTER (NYTIMES) - The cluster of red brick buildings in a remote part of southern Denmark looks unremarkable from the outside, but this week, its classrooms housed some of the rarest people during the pandemic in today's Europe: schoolchildren.

On Wednesday (April 15), 350 students returned to class at the Logumkloster District School for the first time in a month as Denmark became the first country in the Western world to reopen its elementary schools since the start of the coronavirus pandemic. It has turned the Danish education system into a laboratory for whether and how schools can function in an age of contagion.

"It is a new world," Ms Tanja Linnet, the school's head teacher, said as students arrived early on Thursday. "We used to make plans for if there was a terrorist attack here - but never this kind of attack."

Other European countries have also gently eased restrictions on certain businesses and sporting activities in recent days.

But by allowing hundreds of children to congregate once again at thousands of schools across Denmark, the government has taken the boldest step toward something resembling normal life, in a measure that will be watched carefully around the world.

"That's the dilemma of the whole world," said Mr Finn Christensen, the school's deputy head. "When to open up?"

Denmark's approach contrasts with that of Spain, where most children have not been outside in five weeks. With more coronavirus infections than any other country in Europe, Spain forbids children to even take a short walk on the street or exercise near their homes.

For children at the Logumkloster District School, their return was often simply an exciting experience after a month cooped up at home.

"It is so nice to see my best friend again!" said Maja Petersen, a seven-year-old first grader colouring the red bits of the Danish flag.

But things were also a bit bewildering.

To stop the spread of infection, parents weren't allowed inside. Teachers couldn't gather in the staff room. The children each now had their own desks, marooned nearly 2m away from their nearest neighbour. During recess, they could play only in small groups. And by the time the school shut again at 2pm, they had all washed their hands at least once an hour for the past six hours.

"We usually jump and hug and fight and give each other high-fives," said Zakarias Al-Tibi, 10, pointing dolefully at his best friend, Jannik. "But we can't do that anymore."

From an economic perspective, the argument for reopening schools is straightforward. It allows parents who are employed to focus more on their work, said Prof Carl-Johan Dalsgaard, a professor of economics who is one of the four leaders of an independent body that provides economic advice to Danish policymakers.

"You are dramatically less efficient when you have to home-school your children and take care of them every day," he said.

But the medical reasoning is more contested.


Children check their distancing after a recess in Logumkloster, Denmark, on April 16, 2020. PHOTO: NYTIMES

The World Health Organisation has cautioned countries like Denmark against reopening their societies too quickly for fear of reviving the pandemic before it is properly stamped out. The number of active cases in Denmark has dipped in recent days - it has recorded more than 6,870, with 321 deaths - and it has a far lower reported death rate than many countries in Europe. But death statistics can be incomplete during an outbreak, and disease experts warn the pace of new cases can easily pick up again.

Elsewhere in Denmark, these concerns led some parents to create Facebook groups protesting against the reopening of schools, fearing their children were being sacrificed to save the Danish economy.

 
 
 

In the village of Logumkloster, where there have been no known victims of the virus, only a few parents decided against sending their children back to school. But several were conflicted about it.

"Our first reaction was: Isn't it too early?" said Ms Cynthia Paulsen, a cleaner whose 14-year-old son, Arthur, was among those requested to return this week. "Is this the right thing?"

Mr Jesper Bendig initially opted against returning his seven-year-old, Noah. Mr Bendig had no work to return to, having lost his job as a recovery driver at the start of the crisis. What if Noah passed the virus to his younger brother, who has kidney problems?

But by and large, parents at Logumkloster have been won over by the careful way that Ms Linnet, the head teacher, and her staff have refitted the school at just a few frantic days' notice.

The school's floors have been covered with new markings, showing students how far apart they have to stand. Hand-washing has become a part of the school routine - the first stop for all students at the start of every day and then on the hour thereafter. Tea ladies have the new task of touring the school with disinfectant, cleaning each door handle at least twice during school hours.

These changes have been guided by the government, but the government's instructions have sometimes changed on an hourly basis.

"Sometimes, we get an order at 9, and then at 10 we get a new one," said Mr Christensen, the deputy head.

And it's unclear how long these emergency measures will last.

"Is it for a week or two or a month or two?" Ms Linnet asked. "We don't know."

For now, the library has been closed. Teachers aim to do as much teaching as possible outdoors. And instead of arriving through a single entrance, students must enter through several side doors, depending on the location of their classroom.

The only time on Thursday that the students gathered was to sing "Happy Birthday" to the Danish Queen, Margrethe II, who turned 80. But even then they were all outside, standing at 2m intervals on the grass.

One of them was Noah. After keeping him home on Wednesday, Mr Bendig decided to take his son to school on Thursday, reassured by how smoothly the opening day had gone.

"I think the school has control over everything," he said.

For some parents, the most comforting change has been the division of the school's population into small, independent silos. Classes have been divided into two or three subgroups, with each new grouping given its own room and designated teacher.


First grade teacher Lena Thorup’s students sit with just one student at desks made for two in Logumkloster, Denmark, April 16, 2020. PHOTO: NYTIMES

Those teachers now work with only one small group throughout the day, rather than several bigger ones, and their students play only with those from their own class.

For Maja, the first grader, that makes the return to school bittersweet. On the one hand, she can see her best friend, Melanie, again. But they can really only do just that - see each other. They've barely been able to chat, since they were divided into separate classes.

"It's a new situation in a known environment," said Maja's teacher, Ms Lene Thorup. "Comforting but also a challenge."

That applies as much to the teachers as it does the children.

 
 
 

The increase in the number of classes means teachers have more to do and with fewer assistants to help them do it. If they need a brief break, they can call on a three-person team to mind their classrooms for a few minutes. But they can no longer rely on a teaching assistant to shoulder their burden for longer periods, since the assistants are often now teaching their own classes.

"We've been told to have as few teachers per pupil as possible," Mr Christensen said.

Stressful though these measures are for teachers, they have won over wavering parents.

Despite her earlier misgivings, Ms Paulsen sent Arthur to school on Wednesday after being persuaded by a phone call from Arthur's teacher and a conversation with Arthur himself.

"He's happy to be back," she said. "We're happy he's back.

"Things have to start somewhere," she added. "And we have to trust in the government and the school."