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How Denmark Is Thinking About Reopening Schools Safely

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, HOST:

We're going to keep our focus on education a little longer and seek perspective from a country that's had success reopening schools - at least, so far. And that's Denmark. The European country was one of the first to reopen schools in the spring, just as other countries were dealing with the coronavirus surges. And things went so smoothly that this upcoming week, they'll be returning to school the way it was before the pandemic.

To find out more on how they've managed this, we've sought out Dorte Lange. She's vice president of the Danish Union of Teachers, and she's with us from her home in Copenhagen.

Thanks for joining us, Dorte.

DORTE LANGE: Thank you.

FOLKENFLIK: So, as we mentioned, Danish schools reopened this spring, just as other countries were struggling to contain the virus. I understand the government was calling for schools to reopen. As briefly as you can, tell us about that reopening in the spring. First off, what was the reaction of parents and teachers to the proposal?

LANGE: Well, actually, many parents were quite worried about this. And they talk about they didn't want their children to be guinea pigs in this whole matter. But actually, we were able as teachers' trade unions to have a close cooperation with our government and with our employers. And they listened to our worries, and they took them into consideration.

And actually, we were able to make some kind of structures for the reopening that made teachers feel safe about the reopening so we could tell our members of the union that it would be safe to go back to work. And when the parents met the teachers feeling safe about this, they also felt safe. And, of course, there were some structures that had to be met. And our minister of education - she was very, very clear. She said, these conditions are not negotiable. They need to be in place before we reopen.

FOLKENFLIK: So why don't you tell us a little bit about the safety measures that were put in place from the beginning and a little bit about what lessons you learned over the course of the months that ensued?

LANGE: The safety measures were that there had to be small groups of children - like, 10, 12 childrens (ph) in one group - and then one teacher for that group. And then that group was together the whole day in lessons and then spare time. And we also had to teach outside as much as possible. And it was quite warm in the spring in Denmark this year, luckily. So they did a lot of - we did a lot of teaching outside. And handwashing had to be done every one hour and a half.

So those kind of measures had to be met before the schools could open. So that was quite difficult, but it was possible to do it because everybody worked together on it.

FOLKENFLIK: Did you learn anything from that experience that changed over time the way in which you approached it in any significant way?

LANGE: Well, yes. I think we learned that the cooperation is very necessary and very important, and also that our government, the central authorities, didn't say a lot about what was going to be done. They talked about this - you need to have the social distancing between the kids, two meters if they're seated, and you have to do things outside, and you have to have small groups.

But how were you going to do that? That was up to the local schools, the local communities to make it happen. And that cooperation between teachers, the unions and local authorities - the cooperation in all levels of society was extremely important.

FOLKENFLIK: When you have talked to teachers and your members about their concerns, what tend to be the focus of their anxieties or their apprehensions about being in the classroom, going back in the classroom or about reopening this month, basically on the same terms that you were doing before the pandemic affected us all?

LANGE: Well, in the beginning at the reopening, of course, some teachers felt unsafe. And if they, for instance, had some personal health issues like asthma or something like that, they were - of course, they were quite worried about what will happen when we go back. And we made also that - this deal with our central health authorities who put out the regulations and made their recommendations - we told them that we need to make these teachers who are in health risk groups, as you could say - we make - have to make them feel safe as well.

So they made this - how to say? - a rule saying that if you are not feeling safe, you need to contact your own doctor, and he must - he or she must tell you if you are OK to go back to work or not. And if he tells you you're OK to go back to work, then it is because you can deal with this risk in a fine way. So that was put out, like, you know, a central recommendation.

FOLKENFLIK: That was Dorte Lange. She is the vice president of the Danish Union of Teachers.

(SOUNDBITE OF TOKIMONSTA'S "DREAM CHORUS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.