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Anna Ekström, Bildungsministerin Schweden (2019-2022) spricht klare Worte und sagt "Swedish schools stayed open because we followed science"

It was a clear assessment: children were at little risk from Covid but faced a very serious threat from missing out on critical education. (Anna Ekström 10 March 2023)

As Sweden's minister for education, I faced an incredibly difficult question in March 2020: should we keep our schools open or close them? I followed the advice of our scientists and experts. We kept our primary, lower secondary and pre-schools open throughout almost the whole pandemic.

This was not the case elsewhere. It was very strange to see country after country closing their schools at such speed, and I found myself constantly asking if I was making the right decision. We knew there was no risk-free option. Covid was a potential danger for children. But the early data showed they were at much lower risk of serious illness; the real threat was faced by the elderly.

We tried throughout the pandemic to take a holistic view of each potential measure. We tried to take into account the costs – not just in monetary terms, but also health and social losses – of each intervention, and weigh them against what could be gained. I remember sitting down with a blank sheet of paper and putting a plus and minus column for closing the schools- The downsides were simply too great.

Keeping children learning was vital. We were concerned about those living in small apartments without space to learn or exercise, and about those who might go without food. We were concerned about children's happiness. Spending time with friends in school is an important part of young people's lives. For young girls and boys of particular religious backgrounds, forced into marriages or forbidden from mingling with those of other faiths, school is a safe haven,

 We could not deny them that, not least given we did not know how long it would last.

Throughout the pandemic, we followed the science. Our experts were very clear: there was no evidence to support a lockdown. Similarly, we never recommended masks for students. They could wear them if they chose, but there was no requirement. They could wear them if they chose, but there was no requirement.

 This embodied our approach. Instead of strict legal rules we made recommendations on how people could best manage individual risk. I never worried that people wouldn't listen to us. We explained the pros and cons, why recommendations were made, and people listened. When the decision was taken to close upper secondary schools while lower secondary remained open, we explained why: upper secondary students often commute in crowded transport and were old enough to be at greater risk from the disease, but also to take responsibility for their studies.

Matt Hancock's plan to "frighten the pants off everyone" was almost exactly the opposite of what we did. We gave people the information they needed to make decisions for themselves.

Other countries acted differently. I remember working with my colleagues across Europe, including in Britain, and talked from time to time with Nick Gibb, a British education minister. We had a good working relationship discussing the pros and cons of different policies. While we didn't have the same experts, I relayed what our experts were saying. 

I believe we were right to keep schools open. Last spring I met my counterparts from across the EU, who now feel that schools should be the last to close and the first to open. But I have no feeling of vindication, only a heavy stomach at the difficult decisions we faced. The pandemic was a very serious period and in Sweden we were more transparent, clear and outspoken. 

Of course, we didn't get everything right. Our Covid inquiry reported a year ago and said in the next pandemic we should be even clearer with the public. My advice is to be ruthlessly transparent. In Sweden, the rule is simple: we do what we say, and we say what we do. So, no parties here, although they were not forbidden. 

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