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Kids head back to school across Finland

After months of distance learning and isolation from friends, many pupils said they were relieved to go back to school.

Pupils lined up for their first day back to Lohikoski primary school in Jyväskylä on Thursday morning. Image: Niko Mannonen / Yle

Youngsters across the country returned to school classrooms on Thursday, the first day back since the government ordered schools to be closed in mid-March in an effort to prevent the spread of novel coronavirus.

Pupils, teachers and parents had learned to deal with a new normal of distance learning, often with the help of online video conferencing tools.

At the end of last month the government announced that schools would reopen on 14 May.

That decision caused some parents and teachers to worry about the spread of coronavirus, with some planning to keep their kids at home until May 31 when the school year ends.

The big day arrived on Thursday, and according to an extensive survey carried out by Yle, only a small percentage of parents notified schools that their kids would be staying home. The survey suggested that around five percent of children would be staying home.


The doors of the Ojamo primary school in the small southern city of Lohja opened at 8:15am on Thursday. The school's rector Liisa Röntynen said she expected the first day back would be wonderful, and pupil Lilli Lindgren agreed.

"It's nice to go back to school and nice to see friends," Lilli said, explaining that distance learning over the past several weeks had gone well, though it was a bit awkward at first. Her mother, Raisa Lindgren, said taking the classroom home went surprisingly well with Lilli and her two brothers.

"In the beginning there was a bit of confusion but children and teachers quickly learned to use different communication tools. But it is also nice that the kids get back to school and catch up with daily routines," Raisa said.

Thursday's return to Ojamo School was not the same as it had been in the past. The school day begins and ends in stages with different classes. Meals as well as recess periods are staggered in order to keep crowds of children at a minimum.

"We also take care of social distancing and hand hygiene, for example. We're striving to keep everyone healthy," rector Röntynen said, noting that it is important for the pupils to see their classmates and teachers before summer holidays begin.

"For teachers, this is good because now they will get a more accurate picture of how each student is doing," the rector said.

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Sixth-grader Werneri Lappi in class at the Virtasalmi primary school in Pieksämäki. Image: Esa Huuhko / Yle


At the Virtasalmi primary school in South Savo's municipality of Pieksämäki, the first pupils began arriving before 8 in the morning. Sixth-grader Werneri Lappi was among the first to turn up. He said even though he was a bit sleepy, the return to school was quite normal.

He said although he got used to distance learning, it is more comfortable to be in an actual classroom.

"There's no way to make a home into a school. It's a home," the young Lappi said.


In the western city of Jyväskylä, sixth-grader Sonja Manninen said she has been longing to return to school, because distance learning quickly got tiresome. Her home internet connection is slow, making tasks unnecessarily cumbersome at times.

"There were also disagreements with my teacher and that was annoying, too," she explained,

However, she said the return to school is not one she was familiar with, as rules are in place to prevent the spread of coronavirus.

"There are instructions for teachers to hand out food and turn on the water taps when we wash our hands. Doors are always locked, so if you're late, you have to call the teachers to ask to be let in," Manninen said.

Manninen attends the Lohikoski primary school, which is now opening in four different shifts during the course of the day with some classrooms moved to the gymnasium, according to rector Marja Hämäläinen. Like in other schools, outdoor recess breaks are also staggered.

She said the school has accepted around 20 absentee applications for the remainder of the school year.

"All of them were justified. I'm pleased about [the parents'] courage to return to school, because every effort is being made to make it safe," Hämäläinen said.


At the Soidinsuo primary school in Kajaani, around 315 km north of Jyväskylä, groups of pupils are separated in the schoolyard as well as in their classes, according to teacher Heikki Lonkila.

"Groups come and go from their classrooms separately. There is no room for interpretation in these instructions," Lonkila said.

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Teacher Heikki Lonkila, at Kajaani's Soidinsuo schoolyard. Image: Jarmo Nuotio / Yle

Due to rules on keeping distances of two metres between students indoors, each classroom is limited to a maximum of 16 pupils.

"After the summer, we will either return to this 'new normal' or to the distance learning we have gotten a lot of practice with," he said.


Meanwhile, at the Takahuhti primary school in southern Finland's Tampere, sixth-grader Elli Hirvonen said she was happy to return, but noted that she did get to sleep in later when she attended classes at home.

"But it was easy to wake up, because I was waiting so much to get to school. I've missed my friends and teachers. It's something we need to do together," Hirvonen said.

She said it was particularly important to meet with classmates before separating into different schools when they attend seventh grade in the autumn.


Around 400 students returned to the Arctic Circle Secondary School in Finnish Lapland's city of Rovaniemi on Thursday, as well.

According to Yle's survey, only about four percent of pupils there were staying at home.

Teacher Tomi Juotasniemi said that most students returned to class due to the city's calm coronavirus situation.

He said it was particularly important for the school's graduating ninth grade students to get their certificates in person, rather than at home.