Touch a shadow, 'You're it!': New routines as Denmark returns to school after coronavirus lockdown

“Everything is new,” said one second grade teacher, Marie Riber Sundgaard. "Even the games."

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By Molly Hunter and Ziad Jaber

COPENHAGEN, Denmark — The little voices carried over the fence before they were visible: laughter, squealing, yelling.

At Kongevejens Skole, a state primarily school on the outskirts of the capital, a rare sight: kids playing together.

Denmark reopened nurseries and primary schools last week after a month of lockdown and, so far, students are adapting to yet another new normal.

On Thursday afternoon, the second graders at Kongevejens Skole were engaged in a heated game of tag. But instead of physically touching, they stepped on each other’s shadows instead.

“Everything is new,” one second grade teacher, Marie Riber Sundgaard, told NBC News. "Even the games."

Her 8-year-old students "know what to do and when to do it,” she added. “Right now we're five days into this new school, and they just know, ‘Oh, I need to wash my hands, or do I need to be farther away from my friend, or is it OK to sit here?’”

Danish students under the age of 12, returned to school on April 17 after one month of mandatory lockdown.Ziad Jaber / NBC News

Prime Minister Mette Fredrickson ordered the country of 5.8 million locked down on March 11, when around 500 coronavirus cases had been reported but no deaths up to then.

At the time, the only other European country doing so was Italy, which had already recorded hundreds of deaths and thousands of infections.

Fredrickson has since been praised for swift action, putting Denmark in position to attempt a gentle reopening weeks before other European capitals. While restaurants and bars are still closed, much of Copenhagen seemed to be soaking up the April sunshine on Friday afternoon.

The city’s park benches and canal-side seats were occupied by well-dressed Danes sitting close to each other — hugging, even, picnicking and drinking wine. From the trendy waterfront boardwalks, music played and people jumped in the water.

Education Minister Pernille Rosenkrantz-Theil told NBC News that the government had partnered with schools to create the safest possible environments, acknowledging that the first week might be rocky and nervousness among parents was natural.

“We've had our children at home and there’s a dangerous virus” she said. “So what has been important to us is to say that it doesn't matter if we open now or we open in a month time or two-month time. We have to get over that obstacle of concern.”

At Kongevejens Skole, that meant putting up marquee tents behind the school and teaching as many classes as possible outside in the school’s green space.

Riyong Kim kept her two kids home the first day to see how it all played out.

“I was definitely, definitely nervous,” she said as she picked up her youngest, Sienna, 7, from school on Thursday.

After a month of home schooling, she added that Sienna pleaded with her to go back to school, because she needed “to actually learn something.”

But she admitted that parents were confused about how it would all work and specifically why the youngest kids were the first to return.

The Danish government had debated which age group should go back first, Rosenkrantz-Theil said, adding that it decided on the younger age group instead of college-bound high school students because they are already adept at keeping in constant digital touch.

“For the smaller children, it's more difficult to learn at a distance. It's more difficult to have this social contact with friends," she said. "And therefore the cost for the small children is larger."

To help students ease back into social activity while maintaining social distancing, teachers at the Kongevejens Skole have developed games like shadow tag and modified jump rope.Ziad Jaber / Ziad Jaber

For Kim, who has a full-time job, it was ultimately a relief — and further confirmation that she wasn’t meant to be a teacher.

A quick, nonscientific poll of Sundegaard’s second graders found that they missed just about everything about school, from their friends to playtime — even their teacher. Kim said she hoped all this eagerness would last.

Just over a week after the restrictions were loosened, it appears to be working. On Friday, there were just 137 new COVID-19 cases reported in the country, bringing the total to 8,210. And nine deaths reported Friday brought that total to 403 — still far lower than its European neighbors.

Frederickson likened reopening to “walking a tight rope."

“If we stand still, we may fall. If we go too fast, it may soon go wrong," she said in an interview with Danish media. "We don’t know when we’ll be on firm ground again."