New school year began in contact teaching

Current issues
Autumn term in Finland started this week, as education providers at local level have set the starting day for basic education to fall between 11.8.–18.8.2020.  Schools start in contact teaching, but are ready to switch to distance learning if the epidemiological situation requires.
Colourful school bags hanging in a clothes rack in the school corridor

In contact teaching classrooms and other spaces should be arranged so that there is more space between each individual. Special attention is drawn to good hand hygiene and cough hygiene. There  are currently no national level recommendations on the use of masks in schools. Those who are sick or have symptoms suggestive of respiratory infection must not take part in early childhood education and care, in teaching or any other activities organised in the premises of educational institutions . It is important for all suspected coronavirus cases to be tested in a laboratory. If the test results are negative, children can return to ECEC or school if their symptoms are clearly easing and they feel good.

National level recommendations are implemented locally

Under the current exceptional arrangements caused by the COVID-19 situation, the Finnish National Agency for Education (EDUFI) advises and produces support material for education and training providers (most often municipalities or joint municipal authorities as the local education authorities). The instructions take into account current legislation as well as the guidelines prepared by the Ministry of Education and Culture and the Finnish Institute for Health and Welfare. (for a link to the guidelines, see below).

On the basis of the national level recommendations, principals and municipal education leadership decide together with staff and other members of the educational community on the detailed practices to be adopted, according to what works best in the local context. These practices may vary in different parts of the country. Education providers are following the epidemiological situation and possible restrictions in their region and can draw upon the constantly updated national level instructions when deciding on local level arrangements.

Plans support readiness to switch to exceptional arrangements

The national level instructions provide for the possible need to quickly move to special arrangements in education – as was done in the spring. In order to prepare for a potential new surge of the COVID-19 virus, a temporary amendment has been made to the Basic Education Act. The amendment enables a temporary introduction of exceptional teaching arrangements in primary and lower secondary education by decision of the education provider, if contact teaching cannot be organised safely. An assessment of the safety of contact teaching will be made in cooperation with the regional authorities responsible for communicable diseases based on a decision to be issued under the Communicable Diseases Act.

For general upper secondary schools, vocational education and training institutes, universities and universities of applied sciences, as well as for educational institutions that provide liberal education and basic adult education, the decision to use distance learning is up to the education provider, and does not require a separate administrative decision by the infectious diseases authority. 

Being absent from school requires permission  

An agreement with the teacher and principal of the school has to be made if a child does not take part in education normally.

Leave has to be applied for the absence, providing the reasons for the application. Sickness as well as the child or his/her family member belonging to a risk group are acceptable reasons for absence. In such cases the school has no obligation to arrange distance teaching as such, but it has to guide the pupil’s work at home. 

Instead of applying for a leave of absence, the parents/carers can request that special arrangements such as distance teaching are made to support a pupil who studies from home because of a risk of infection. The legislation enables special teaching arrangements in cases where for example it is justified for reasons relating to the pupil's health. The Finnish Non-Discrimination Ombudsman has recommended that special teaching arrangements are made available also for pupils who stay at home because their family member belongs to a risk group.

Summary of aspects that need to be taken into account or planned

Education providers are required to prepare guidelines on when and how they would adopt exceptional arrangements, and how distance teaching, support to learning and other services are arranged if the corona situation requires. These are documented in the education provider’s annual plan and the education institutions’ student welfare plan. The starting point is that changes to the local curriculum are not made.

Schools have been advised to consider the following aspects when arranging schoolwork in the autumn of 2020:
•    Availability and accessibility of equipment, data connections and materials is ascertained
•    Plans are made for organizing school meals in different situations
•    Institutions’ student welfare groups plan for how to arrange student welfare services and check that the crisis management plans are up to date
•    Plans are made on how support to learning is provided if schools are in a distance education mode 
•    Annual plans are updated with a plan of action for switching to special teaching arrangements and alternating contact- and distance teaching (including assessment practices) 
•    Special attention is paid to communication between schools and homes/parents. 
•    Division of tasks and responsibilities for staff are outlined, and attention is paid to staff welfare

The Finnish National Agency for Education (EDUFI)  has provided instructions and support materials on these aspects.

Minimising contact crucial 

In order to prevent infections, minimising contacts continues to be crucial. In order to achieve this, the following practices are recommended:
•    Apart from children and staff members, outsiders are advised no to spend time in or around schools and early childhood education centres and their surrounding areas. 
•    Classrooms and other spaces will be arranged so that there are fewer people in the same space than normally or that there is more space between each individual.
•    Staff members should work with one and the same group of children/pupils. As a rule, to prevent the spread of infections staff members should not move from one unit to another.
•    In primary schools, the different teaching groups are to be kept separate throughout the school day. In lower secondary schools and in optional subjects, the teaching groups may change if the teaching cannot be organised any other way.
•    If keeping teaching groups separate is impossible in secondary schools, for example, effort should be made to create spaciousness and to stagger teaching as far as possible.
•    School meals should be held individually with the students’ own class or group; no joint meals in the lunchroom. The lunchroom can be used in turns.
•    Staff members must avoid assembling, which means for example that teachers should hold their meetings primarily remotely.

If someone in early childhood education and care, in school or in an educational institution is diagnosed with COVID-19, those who might possibly have been exposed to it are tracked down and quarantined for 14 days. The person infected with coronavirus must stay away for at least 14 days from the onset of symptoms and have been asymptomatic for at least two days.