As students return to classrooms across Finland this week, uncertainty remains regarding official guidelines on how teaching should be organised in the current coronavirus situation.
The Finnish National Agency for Education issued its own coronavirus guidelines at the end of June, but the Finnish Institute for Health and Welfare (THL) and the Ministry of Education only published their own recommendations last week.
"The most important thing is, also from now on, to prevent infections, ensure good hygiene, avoid unnecessary close contacts, and arrange teaching premises more spaciously than usual," the joint statement by THL and the ministry read. "By following these recommendations, the risk of infection and the spread of the coronavirus can be reduced."
However, the timing of the release has left schools with little time to prepare for the upcoming semester.
Furthermore, there is still uncertainty over certain issues, such as the wearing of face masks, which has been a topic of much public debate in Finland over recent weeks and months -- with an official government recommendation expected next week.
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In many municipalities, schoolchildren use public transport not only to and from school but also on school-organised trips and Kuopio's Education Director Leena Auvinen told Yle there is a need for clearer instructions on what children should do.
"It is important to protect children and if masks are considered necessary in school transport, then of course we will go for them," Auvinen said.
Not all recommendations can be implemented at once
The guidelines provided to schools emphasise good hygiene and the importance of keeping safe distances.
"Nobody should go to early childhood education, school or workplace if they have any symptoms of a respiratory illness until the possibility of a coronavirus infection has been ruled out by tests. The recommendations emphasise good hand and cough hygiene and enhanced cleaning," the joint statement by THL and the Ministry for Health stated.
Olli Kauppinen, Education Director in the city of Joensuu, told Yle he is happy that the guidelines have been prepared mainly as recommendations, so municipalities can consider how to follow them on the local level. For example, there is a recommendation school meals should be arranged so that large groups of students do not congregate at the same time.
However, Kauppinen added that all the recommendations will be difficult to implement concurrently, citing as an example one proposal to divide the school day into morning and evening shifts.
This would make it much more difficult to organise school transport and would increase costs unreasonably, Kauppinen said.
Experience of spring will benefit schools
Fortunately for schools, the latest coronavirus instructions are largely similar to those provided in the spring, when students returned to classrooms for two weeks at the end of May.
According to Antti Ikonen, chair of the Finnish School Principals organisation, schools in Finland are better prepared now than in the spring.
"The belief and confidence has been strengthened that things will work out when they start to be resolved," Ikonen said, adding that an 84 million euro grant provided by the state to offset the impact of the coronavirus crisis on education will help matters in the autumn.
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In schools, the grant funds are to be used for remedial education, special education and student guidance, and Ikonen said he hopes it will help foster a better community spirit within schools during the coming academic semester.
"How do we modify school practices so that the community of students and the whole school is maintained? That’s one big issue that will come up in many schools this autumn," Ikonen added.