No face masks and no closures: How Sweden kept schools open throughout the pandemic

Connor Parker
·5-min read

As the government struggles to find the right approach to get kids back to school in England safely, there’s one European country that has been able to keep their classrooms open throughout the pandemic – Sweden.

When coronavirus began to severely impact Europe in March, countries across the continent each came up with ways to combat the spread of the disease.

Most nations, including the UK, settled on lockdowns, restricting travel for their population and closing all businesses and schools.

Teenagers at a school in Stockholm during March when most other European nations decided to put their countries into lockdown and send their children home. (Getty)
Teenagers at a school in Stockholm during March when most other European nations decided to put their countries into lockdown and send their children home. (Getty)

But while the four UK nations grapple with how to successfully return students to education – and ensure parents maintain confidence in the process – Sweden has managed to keep its pupils in the classroom throughout.

A graduation ceremony in Stockholm in June, with social distancing in place and only two relatives allowed to attend with them. (Getty)
A graduation ceremony in Stockholm in June, with social distancing in place and only two relatives allowed to attend with them. (Getty)

Read more: WHO warns young people flouting lockdown rules could lead to spike in deaths

Ministers have struggled to present a coherent plan for schools reopening in England – particularly in regards to mask wearing – with anger from parents, teachers’ unions and opposition parties mounting.

The government performed another education-related u-turn earlier this week when they decided to stop advising against masks being worn in schools in England.

The new policy is that staff and pupils in secondary schools in high infection areas will be required to wear a mask.

Scotland has made it a requirement for masks to be worn in all secondary schools, while Wales said it’ll be up to schools and councils to decide.

Sweden never closed schools as part of its light approach to lockdown, with most businesses staying open.

The country has implemented few hard rules, with bans on visits to care homes and stopping large gatherings of over 50 people being the main ones.

The businesses and the general population has also been quick to adopt social distancing, with bars and restaurants putting tape on every other table to keep people apart.

Teenagers at a school in Stockholm in March. (Getty)
Teenagers at a school in Stockholm in March. (Getty)

Statistician Ola Rosling told the BBC’s More or Less podcast in July: “We have kept our schools open and I definitely think that all countries in the world can do that.

“The children are told to keep separate, the teachers are careful, there's no hugging etc and in Sweden, we don't see any evidence that parents and teachers are much more infected.”

Rosling said while they didn’t have perfect data to properly assess the impact he noted there had barely been any outbreaks in schools.

He also said Sweden did have several advantages when it comes to fighting epidemics, with a lot of people living on their own and a very low population density.

Swedish schools are currently being asked to ensure social distancing takes place but is not advising the use of masks.

Read more: NHS staff smear themselves in fake blood in Downing Street protest over pay

The daily new confirmed COVID-19 cases in Sweden.
The daily new confirmed COVID-19 cases in Sweden.

While some schools are doing part of their education digitally basically all have been open since the pandemic began.

The main difference that school pupils face is strict social distancing at all times, particularly between student and teacher.

Sweden’s public health agency said in July keeping schools open during the pandemic did not result in a higher infection rate among its children compared to neighbouring Finland.

The report showed that severe cases of COVID-19 were very rare among both Swedish and Finnish children aged one to 19, with no deaths reported.

Children made up around 8.2% of the total number of COVID-19 cases in Finland, compared to 2.1% in Sweden.

They have maintained that the negative consequences of a shutdown on the economy and society outweigh the benefits, and said this also applies to schools.

Last week Sweden’s prime minister Stefan Lofven defended keeping schools open.

He said: "What has been discussed most, and what we did differently in Sweden, was that we did not close schools.

Read more: Government's £180 compensation for self-isolating branded a 'slap in the face'

Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Lofven. (Getty)
Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Lofven. (Getty)

“Now there are quite a few people who think we were right."

Lofven also commented on why masks were only recommended rather than required in most areas, including schools.

He said: “What they are saying, and what I absolutely believe, is that they cannot be the main tool we use."

“What is important still is social distancing, testing and tracking. Those must be our main focus in order to reduce infection.”

The World Health Organization (WHO) released new advice on Friday saying pupils over the age of 12 should wear a mask in school.

State epidemiologist Anders Tegnell, the main architect of Sweden's approach, told the Observer earlier this month that 30% of the country could have antibodies.

State epidemiologist Anders Tegnell of the Public Health Agency of Sweden and architect of the countries light approach to lockdown. (Getty)
State epidemiologist Anders Tegnell of the Public Health Agency of Sweden and architect of the countries light approach to lockdown. (Getty)

It is not yet fully clear that after recovering from COVID-19 the antibodies you have developed will make you completely immune to the disease.

It emerged this week a man in Hong Kong who recovered from coronavirus became infected again four and a half months later.

Even if Tegnell’s estimate of 30% immunity is correct, they are still far off the required 70 or so per cent needed to reach effective herd immunity.

The decision to keep schools open hasn't been perfect, at least one teacher has died after contracting coronavirus in a school where 18 of 76 staff tested positive.

More than 5,800 Swedes have died of COVID-19, a much higher death rate than in neighbouring Norway, Denmark and Finland.

Sweden currently has a number of cases per 100,000 on a 14 day average of 35.4, higher than the UK’s 22.6 but lower than France’s 70 and Spain’s 191.9.

Its deaths per 100,000 over the past 14 days are similar with 0.4, twice as high as the UK’s, but lower than Spain’s 0.8.

Coronavirus: what happened today

Click here to sign up to the latest news and information with our daily Catch-up newsletter