European teachers, parents, officials challenge Trump claim on their schools reopening

The president said schools in Germany, Denmark, Norway and Sweden, "along with many other countries," were "open with no problems."
Image: Students sit in a classroom at a primary school in Eichenau, southern Germany,
Students sit in a classroom at a primary school in Eichenau, southern Germany, on June 16.Christof Stache / AFP - Getty Images file

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By Henry Austin, Yuliya Talmazan, Andy Eckardt and Carlo Angerer

LONDON — Parents, teachers and union officials in Germany and Scandinavian countries have challenged President Donald Trump’s suggestion that schools in those nations were “open with no problems.”

Comparing the U.S. response to that of Denmark was “wrong,” Niels Larsen, a musician and the father of three school children in the capital Copenhagen, told NBC News on Thursday, adding that the way the two countries had approached the coronavirus pandemic was “quite different.”

“We took the initial hit to our economy and the hard blows, and now we are seeing the benefits with things like the reopening of schools, so that’s where the comparison is wrong,” he said by telephone.

Denmark was one of the first European countries to lock down, while U.S. officials have been criticized for waiting too long to do so and then opening up too fast.

Commenting on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's recent guidelines about school reopenings, Trump tweeted Wednesday that schools were being asked “to do very impractical things” as White House officials called the guidelines too restrictive.

Trump also threatened to cut off funding for schools that do not reopen this fall.

Schools in “Germany, Denmark, Norway and Sweden, along with many other countries” were “open with no problems,” he said.

German officials said that there had been big changes to the way children were educated in the country, which has been praised for its response to the pandemic after it went into lockdown early, shutting schools and businesses.

“Students of all school types are back in school, but not every day,” Günther Schuster, a spokesman for the Ministry of Education in the state of Bavaria, said. He added that at a typical secondary school class, half of the students attended in the morning and the other half in the afternoon.

“Face-to-face instruction only takes place in small groups,” he said, explaining that student groups are not mixed and social distancing measures are in place in classrooms.

Nearly 200,000 coronavirus cases have been confirmed in Germany so far, with more than 9,000 deaths. According to an NBC News' tally, there are now more than 3 million confirmed coronavirus cases in the United States and 133,170 deaths.

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While not directly contradicting Trump's comments, Heinz-Peter Meidinger, the head of the German Teachers' Association, said the situation for schools in that country was full of uncertainty and many colleagues were nervous about returning to full capacity.

“We have different infection patterns in the different German states,” he said. “No one really knows how the infections [across Germany] will develop after the summer school holidays.”

Sweden adopted a different approach than that of Germany and much of the rest of Europe, and kept most schools and businesses open throughout the pandemic, a policy which has been questioned by some experts as the death toll there reached 5,500 Thursday.

Nevertheless,one educator there asked why Trump had referred to the country.

Third grader Solen Ostermann at Nordstrand Steinerskole school in Oslo washes his hands after the school reopened on April 27.Heiko Junge / NTB Scanpix/AFP via Getty Images file

“It’s not that there were no problems with children going back, because they never really went away,” an assistant principal at a school in Stockholm said, referring to Trump's tweet.

He wanted to stay anonymous because he was not officially authorized to comment, but added that comparing the U.S. with a nation the size of Sweden “wasn’t sensible.”

His comments were echoed by Jesper Hansen, 47, a father of three young children who said his country, Denmark, “was much smaller.”

Denmark shut all schools and universities in March, but classes reopened for younger children the following month, again with strict regulations in place about class sizes and social distancing.

Hansen said teachers had done a great job adapting the classrooms and he praised the government’s handling of the pandemic.

Larsen, the dad in Copenhagen, agreed. He said that Denmark had paid a price in terms of its economy early, but was now reaping the benefits of an early lockdown.

In the U.S., the decisions about lockdowns were left to individual states and some imposed stricter measures than others.

“There have been a lot of challenges, of course,” he said, adding that there had been times during the lockdown in which his daughters Anna, 16, Eva, 13, and Helga, 6, had struggled with online learning and missed their friends.

Dorte Lange, vice president of the Danish teachers union, said it was paramount for governments to involve educators in decision-making during the pandemic.

“If you don’t take teachers' worries seriously, you won’t be able to build that trust that makes reopening possible,” she said. “It is very important that teachers feel safe, so parents feel safe.”

Steffen Handal, a primary school teacher and president of the largest education union in Norway, agreed.

The country went into lockdown early. Schools and kindergartens were shut down March 12. The country then reopened them in phases in mid-April and May.

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Handal said “infection control measures were quite difficult” at the start, adding that it had been a struggle to get enough teachers and classrooms to accommodate social distancing regulations and smaller class sizes.

Although he would not address Trump’s comments directly, he said that there were lessons to be learned.

Collaboration among all stakeholders, including teachers, schools, unions, local municipalities, health authorities and the government was “absolutely fundamental,” he said.

“We decided in our union very early on, not to pretend to be experts on COVID-19. We decided we would leave the discussion on what type of measures should be introduced to the real experts,” Handal added. “It is very important that everybody does what they are good at.”

Henry Austin and Yuliya Talmazan reported from London. Andy Eckardt and Carlo Angerer reported from Mainz, Germany.