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Iceland: responses to the Covid-19 outbreak

The fact that Iceland is an island State with only one major point of entry from abroad, has a very small population and undertook measures of social distancing and a comprehensive testing strategy all led to low  infection and fatality rates.

On 13 March the Minister of Health announced that the operations of pre-primary and elementary schools would be limited and upper secondary schools (VET included) and universities were closed. The schools had one weekend to reorganise their activities, although many had started preparations a few days or even one to two weeks earlier in anticipation of such measures.

As of 4 May, upper secondary schools and universities reopened with certain limitations, while elementary schools and pre-schools returned mostly to normal. In the meantime, upper secondary schools and universities had operated completely via distance learning solutions.

The education ministry has held regular meetings with schools at all levels and with various other stakeholders. A formal task force with representatives from schools and other education institutions, social partners, municipalities, teachers and learners has been meeting regularly since early March. The ministry has tried not to centralise solutions and procedures and has adopted an advising and consultative role.

Adapting to the school closures and limitations on public gatherings has mostly been left to the individual school units themselves.

The school system and VET adaptations

Organising distance learning solutions for VET programmes has been more challenging than doing so for general education. Almost all initial VET studies in Iceland are provided in upper secondary schools, which had begun restructuring study programmes to prioritise the practical components before widely anticipated closures. During the school closures the focus has been on finalising general subjects and carrying on with the practical parts insofar as possible.  VET learners needing to access practical training equipment were given priority in entering the schools and, in most cases, they were able to finish their training and their terms with a one to two-week delay. The approach was similar for apprentices.

In terms of assessment, all learners who had been doing well before the closures and had been attending and participating via distance learning during the closures, were guaranteed that they would finish their study programmes and, where applicable, graduate. Journeyman examinations will mostly take place in early June, so in VET learners who remained active and had been doing well in their studies and training prior to the school closures were generally not affected, a couple of weeks‘ delay aside.

Challenges and reflections

The greatest challenge is the dropout rate. Many learners have experienced difficulties remaining active in isolation from fellow learners or workmates (for those in apprenticeship schemes). The schools have used many methods of trying to reach out to those learners showing no or limited activity. Teachers and guidance councillors have been actively telephoning up to two thirds of individual learners, offering advice and encouragement. It is currently difficult to estimate the dropout rate but data on learner engagement in some study some programmes raise reasonable concerns.

Reflecting on this demanding period leads to the assumption that schoolwork will never return completely to the times before COVID-19. Iceland is already highly exposed to digitalisation but some schools had come much further than others in using distance learning solutions. It is expected that experiences from this period will have a ′digital′ impact in future teaching practices.