Returning to school in a pandemic

Profiles in Norwegian Science


Photo: Ilan Kelman.
Pre-pandemic learning near Oslo: How safe is the classroom today?

Agder, Norway

The COVID-19 pandemic has affected everyone, including children. To stop the virus from overwhelming health systems and killing vulnerable people, lockdown measures kept people at home. It transpired that this approach, by reducing infections, further prevented many being debilitated by “long COVID.”

Yet kids’ education and socialization have been severely interrupted, with the full impacts only appearing in coming years. Less interaction with others could also mean that their immune systems are behind in development, while signs of abuse or learning differences might have been missed.

Caregivers, too, had to deal with their livelihoods impeded by their responsibilities. Many were separated from their children if the caregivers were not living together or if a caregiver had to isolate for work or medical reasons.

As the pandemic drags on, with some of the world being vaccinated as travel restrictions continue, what should schools do? What is best for balancing the needs of children, staff, and families, in terms of minimizing COVID-19 transmission without causing other difficulties?

A slew of papers published this year about COVID-19 and youth across Norway provides insights into decisions about children’s education. The research covered coronavirus transmission in schools and the impacts of not being in school.

All schools in Norway closed on March 13, 2020. Ages 1 – 5 returned just over a month later on April 20, ages 6 – 10 and 18 – 19 (as final year students) returned on April 27, and ages 10 – 18 on May 11. In the meantime, restrictions on large gatherings and permission to enter Norway fluctuated.

One study modeled in-school transmission of the virus in Oslo and Tromsø, concluding that significant increases in COVID-19 would unlikely be from reopening schools. Meanwhile, an analysis of real data of children in Norway younger than 14 attending school from August to November last year showed that preventive measures taken in the classroom could provide a safe environment for in-person learning.

A third study confirmed these results, as it could not find much increase in transmission around Norway based on reopening schools. The scientists expressed clearly that major factors in this apparent observation were physical distancing in schools, significant pandemic control measures occurring outside of school, a high testing rate, and a pre-return low rate of COVID-19 transmission. That is, schools could open safely provided that case numbers are already low and that many actions to stop infection are taken throughout the country.

Returning to school under such conditions could still inhibit health and wellbeing. One study investigated changes from February 2019 to June 2020 in anxiety and depressive symptoms in 3,572 teenagers around Norway. The observed slight increase is attributed to aging rather than to the pandemic or lockdowns. Another paper examined 87 children in Norway in June 2020, indicating reduced wellbeing, also attributed to non-pandemic social and family factors.

A Bergen-specific study surveyed 2,997 youth aged 12 – 19 in April and May 2020 regarding the impact of the lockdown on life, family, and learning. The most negative aspects were reported by girls, older teenagers, those from poorer families, and those whose families migrated from poorer countries. This information helps to target interventions.

In determining how schools could balance education, socialization, and physical and mental health and wellbeing, it is not just about the pupils. They have family members who might vulnerable. Schools have staff, many who might be vulnerable or living with people who are vulnerable.

The more people on public transport or in the street, the more likely wider disease transmission could occur. As eager as everyone might be to have the classrooms and hallways full, ripple effects must be considered.

Norway, overall, has done reasonably well in the pandemic, with numbers below the world’s per capita average for confirmed COVID-19 cases and deaths, while staying above average in testing. The studies so far also seem to show that Norway has done reasonably well in managing children’s health and wellbeing. There remains a long way to go regarding both the virus and the impacts of control measures.

In the end, we are forced to continue an unfortunate experiment in real-time with real people, which will teach us plenty but much of it too late to help today’s youth. With pre-COVID-19 pandemic plans still being uncovered on shelves, it is abundantly clear that, from the beginning, we could and should have done so much better for children, their families, their educators, and us all.

The papers used for this article, in order, are:


This article originally appeared in the Sept. 3, 2021, issue of The Norwegian American.

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Ilan Kelman

Ilan Kelman is Professor of Disasters and Health at University College London, England, and Professor II at the University of Agder, Norway. His overall research interest is linking disasters and health, including the integration of climate change into disaster research and health research. Follow him at and @ILANKELMAN on Twitter and Instagram.