Finland’s classrooms will gradually reopen again on May 14, following school closures that started last month across the country to stem the spread of novel coronavirus.
The nation’s public schools switched to remote learning on 18 March, when the government declared a state of emergency over coronavirus.
Prime Minister Sanna Marin announced the move to reopen primary and lower secondary schools at a government press conference on Wednesday evening in Helsinki.
Marin said schools will be opened in stages in a controlled manner, in accordance with health officials' guidance and keeping classrooms separate from each other, possibly in different shifts. The PM said more information on such guidelines will come later.
She noted that schools will not be permitted to continue organising remote classes once classrooms open again, meaning that students will not be allowed to stay home to complete the academic year without special permission.
Marin said there were no legal barriers to opening schools again, and that all children have a right to an education.
Expanding on the topic, education minister Li Andersson said the country's children's right to a classroom education was only temporarily restricted to prevent the spread of the viral outbreak.
"We have succeeded well. But the restrictions can only continue for very good reasons, but [those reasons] no longer exist," Andersson said.
New rules in schools
Andersson laid out some guidelines that schools will need to follow once they open again.
She said unnecessary physical contact between students is to be avoided and that there should be fewer pupils gathered in classrooms and other common spaces, like cafeterias. Teachers and students should not move around to different areas of schools, she said.
The minister said that students will not be permitted to assemble for parties or traditional end-of-the-year festivities.
Andersson said the government was unmoved by the teachers' union OAJ negative opinion about the reopening of schools before summer break.
"We've always followed the same principle, all decisions are made on the basis of safety recommendations. We are complying with the law and obligations in all contexts."
"The message is clear. We cannot continue to [keep schools closed] because it is not sustainable epidemiologically. But we will keep good hygiene rules in place, they ensure safety for students and teachers."
She added that teachers in risk groups - or those with family members in such circumstances, will be able to negotiate with their schools about possibly carrying out other tasks.
When asked whether students and teachers would be issued personal protective gear, Andersson said the Institute for Health and Welfare has not advised such measures.
Another reporter pointed out that many parents would be reluctant to send their children to school at this stage and asked what Andersson would tell them?
"Everyone should come [to school]. This decision is based on the health authorities' assessment that the restrictions are no longer needed for pupils and teachers. We hope that students participate in local education and come to school. Otherwise, they will need to apply separately for the right to be absent," Andersson said.
The education minister also noted that schools will need to prepare for the autumn with updated hygiene and social distancing policies once schools reopen after the summer holidays.
Closures and shut-downs
When schools were shut down, the government declared a state of emergency and banned gatherings of more than 10 people. Those orders also shut down museums, theatres, cinemas, the national opera, libraries, mobile libraries, hobby facilities and swimming pools, youth clubs and other gathering points and recommended that third sector organisations and religious congregations do the same.
Finland’s international borders were partially closed on 19 March. A couple of weeks later, the government ordered the closure of the country’s bars, cafes and restaurants on 4 April, but added the provision that eateries could still offer take-out service.
The borders of the southern region of Uusimaa, which is home to 1.7 million people and the area in which coronavirus has spread the most, were also temporarily closed on 28 March but a couple of weeks later the government announced the region would be reopened on 15 April.