Part school closures and distance learning
Sweden has followed a unique policy concerning school closures, keeping schools for children aged 7 to 15 and preschools open. On 13 March 2020 a new act was adopted, allowing the Government to temporarily close preschools, schools and other educational activities should the situation deteriorate. A new ordinance was put in place, giving the responsible organiser the right temporarily to close an educational activity under certain conditions, for example if a large number of teachers should be unable to teach due to illness or if Covid-19 should become widespread locally. Following recommendations from the Public Health Agency of Sweden, upper secondary schools, municipal adult education, vocational adult education and higher education institutions have provided distance learning since mid-March and will continue to do so until further notice. The overall impression thus far is that the shift to distance learning has worked out well. Schools have made great efforts to overcome digital challenges and safeguard access to online resources. Many schools were already utilising digital platforms and digital tools even before the pandemic outbreak. The use of existing digital tools and teaching strategies facilitated a smooth transition to distance learning.
Challenges for work-based learning
Although distance learning is recommended, work-based learning (WBL) programmes and apprenticeships can still be carried out provided that the workplace is capable of taking on a student or an apprentice. However, the economic impact of the coronavirus on the business sector has been severe. Many business owners are experiencing unprecedented uncertainty and do not know whether their businesses will survive, nor what will happen to their employees. Consequently, there are fewer opportunities for WBL and apprenticeships. WBL opportunities can also be jeopardised by a situation where employees are simply far too busy; this is especially true of the health care sector which, for obvious reasons, is under tremendous pressure. Another limitation is that minors are not allowed in workplaces where there is a risk of being exposed to severe infectious diseases. If a school organiser is not able to find a suitable workplace in the current situation, an exception from the recommendations makes it possible to organise vocational training for small groups of students in the school building.
Increased grants for adult education
Actions have been taken to mitigate the economic effects the Covid-19 outbreak will have on society. The measures are intended to provide greater security for those affected by the pandemic by combating the effects on businesses and jobs and providing financial security. In order to meet the increased need for training and transition opportunities for those who nevertheless become unemployed during this severe crisis, the Government has decided to issue more generous state grants for adult education to make it easier to study throughout the country.
Support measures for teachers, school leaders and school organisers
One of the key insights so far has been that there is no lack of good solutions, but the overall challenge lies in disseminating these solutions to such an extent that teachers, students and school organisers can benefit from digital innovations and successful practices throughout the country. The Swedish National Agency for Education has been tasked with providing support and guidelines for school organisers, school leaders and teachers. The agency:
- has used its website to publish advice on how to interpret recently enacted legislation to address the coronavirus crisis as well as related recommendations from the Public Health Agency of Sweden, and to disseminate examples of best practices in distance learning;
- put out related films, podcasts and radio programmes to inspire and support teachers and school organisers;
- launched, in cooperation with other stakeholders, the platform skola hemma (home schooling), which is designed to meet the needs of schools during the coronavirus crisis.
Different degree of digital competences
The degree of digital competence differs considerably between teachers, students and schools, which challenges educational equity on a national level. Unfortunately, this inequity is sometimes underlined by differences between families in relation to digital competence, digital tools and access to internet from home. Particularly in scarcely populated areas, access to internet could be a problem. To compensate for these differences, some schools have provided students with the necessary tools and access to Wi-Fi. In other cases, students have been allowed to study in the school building even though the recommendation is distance learning for all.
Reaching out to students with special needs
Another main challenge has been to identify and reach out to students with special needs and those who are not coping as well with the new situation for other reasons. Students are at risk of falling behind if they do not get adequate support. As a remedy, exceptions from the recommendations have been allowed, which make it possible to support students with special needs in the school building. On the other hand, an unexpected but positive effect seems to be that less motivated students, some with a history of extended absenteeism, may now find it easier to participate and engage in studies.
Challenge of grading and assessment
We conclude with a few reflections on an area that is the source of a great deal of concern: grading and assessment. Teachers are worried that students are not given fair opportunities in the current situation. Consequently, grades might be less valid and reliable, a detrimental effect in any education system but perhaps even more so in a system like Sweden’s, where high-stakes grades play a significant role in admission to higher education institutions. The Swedish National Agency for Education has provided guidelines for teachers to safeguard a reliable assessment process. Hopefully, this action will alleviate the problem, but time will tell what the effects will be.