School lockdown? Comparative analyses of responses to the COVID-19 pandemic in European countries

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD, 2020) describes the closure of schools in different countries. Based on their reporting, Table 1 shows how many days the primary schools were closed during the spring of 2020. We have also included closures of secondary schools and confirmed COVID-19 cases per million inhabitants.

In Table 1 we present our first finding – that in seven European countries there were primary school lockdowns, while one country – Sweden – kept primary schools open.

Components in assemblages

In all eight countries, we identified five kinds of heterogeneous components activated in a COVID-19 assemblage: medical, political, juridical, educational and media agents. Importantly, each component can comprise individuals and organizations as well as material and discursive entities:

  1. Medical agents are experts and professions in medical science, including national agencies of public health offices, and prevention and curative activities.

  2. Political agents are actors on national, regional and/or local levels – for example, parliaments and governments – with legitimate political power to lay down regulations and who stand politically responsible for the decisions made.

  3. Juridical agents are present in terms of laws and regulations governing policymaking and relations between agents.

  4. Educational agents are teachers, school leaders, national agencies, researchers, trade unions, etc. They are actors with educational expertise or organizing or carrying out educational activities.

  5. Media agents are organizing platforms for exchange of information from assemblage agents – such as medical and political authorities – presenting and commenting on what is regarded as newsworthy and opening up platforms for other actors to perform.

What came to be territorialized as an assemblage was not an everyday social formation; for instance, the school sector and the medical sector are highly separated and have little to do with each other in their everyday institutional lives. It was the responses to mitigate the COVID-19 that kept them together.

However, as we will show, coding patterns between components varied across countries since relations of exteriority (Savage, 2020) between components are nationally embedded; perhaps the most obvious examples here are available laws and regulations.

Importantly, daily press briefings delivered statistics on the pandemic and advice on how to act to prevent the spread of the disease in all the countries. As argued by Zinn (2020), the virus embraced elements necessary to become major news events. Through the media, experts in medical science, politicians, education actors and others reached the citizens in general, but also started to respond to each other. Yet, as we will discuss here, activation of the agency of a collage of agents and the making of a COVID-19 assemblage demanded national decision-making as to how to deal with the school question.

National cases

In the following, we present actions and reactions of heterogeneous components as processes of a territorialization (DeLanda, 2016) of evolving COVID-19 assemblages. The national cases are presented in alphabetical order.

Denmark

In a press conference on 11 March, the Danish prime minister announced the decision to close the school premises as part of a package of measures, including to send all civil servants home who could work remotely, from 16 March. These steps were justified as necessary to slow down the spread of the infection, in order not to allow the health-care system collapse (Regeringen, 2020). Live press conferences, where the government informed about the number of infected and measures to confine the spread of the virus, were frequent in the weeks to come and reached historically high numbers of viewers.

In the emergent assemblage, the prime minister and the government appeared as the dominating component. The two medical authorities were assigned subordinated roles: the Danish Health Authority (DHA), responsible for public health issues and uniform health-care services, and the State Serum Institute (SSI), principally a research institute responsible for preventing and combatting infectious diseases. As the medical authorities, in the initial phase of the pandemic, represented different positions regarding school closure (Altinget, 2020; Information, 2020) it was possible for the government to achieve legitimacy for their proposal to close schools without the support of the medical components of the assemblage.

The government decision presupposed a change in the Communicable Diseases Act, that in a few days was approved by the legislative assembly, the Danish Parliament (Retsinformation, 2020). The revised law equipped the minister in charge, the minister for health and the elderly, with far-reaching authority, including decisions on whether schools and educational institutions should be closed or open.

During the closure, the daily care of school children was handed over to parents. For those who had essential functions in society, the municipalities arranged emergency education and care. Other parents were encouraged to find solutions for the care of their children. It was emphasized that children were supposed to follow the school day from home. In the 10 years of compulsory schooling in Denmark, there is a duty to learn what corresponds to the requirements, in public school or alternative schooling, but attendance is not compulsory (Børne- og undervisningsministeriet, 2020). Although provided with digital material and instructions, most of the schoolwork during the closure took place as individual work, while those in the higher classes had access to virtual classrooms (Danmarks Evalueringsinstitut, 2021).

To conclude, the government, as the political component of the Danish assemblage, took a leading role from the start. The decision to close school premises was based on the assumption that it was necessary to deal with the pandemic challenge. This was made possible by the fact that the medical component was divided about the measures. Furthermore, this political dominance was rendered possible by the juridical component, thereby territorializing both the authorities of the medical and the educational components.

Finland

The first known case of COVID-19 in Finland was announced on 29 January. At the beginning of March, the Finnish government announced martial law/a state of emergency and decided to activate the existing Emergency Powers Act (Valmiuslaki. 1552/2011), which gave the government extended power to stop the spread of the virus. The government used this activated legislation and, among other things, decided to close the school premises. Homeschooling was not new in Finland, since Finnish basic education law (Perusopetuslaki. 628/1998) already enabled it due to its ‘obligation to learn’ legislation (läroplikt). However, traditionally only a minority of Finnish families used it, but suddenly it became mandatory for almost everybody. When school premises were closed, most students, apart from, for instance, children with special needs or whose parents were needed as part of the work force in the medical sector, turned to homeschooling and distance education. The tools for home education were already established, and the authorities’ educational material for homeschooling and distance education was provided by the media.

The decisions to close school premises were political and got their legitimacy from the juridical component. However, the medical component was probably also present in the decisions through the National Institute for Health and Welfare (THL), whose task was to support the Ministry of Social Affairs and Health. The Finnish public was informed about the political decisions through daily press conferences. Here, the THL supported the decision to the school premises.5 Through press conferences, the public was also educated in terms of how to behave during the pandemic in order to stop the spread of the virus. During this period, the political decisions were unquestioned, with few critical public voices.

Despite the fact that the pandemic in many ways changed the ordinary way of living, it can be argued that formally nothing happened to education, since teaching continued through the existing legislation and educational prerequisites, which followed a logic of events based on political decisions. Yet there was a huge change, as school premises in Finland were closed.

To conclude, in Finland the closure of school premises was considered necessary in order to stop the spread of the virus and was made possible thanks to political decisions based on already existing juridical prerequisites. Thus, the political component coded how education should contribute to the mitigation of the pandemic. Following this, education could be regarded as re-coded and thereby a component of the COVID-19 assemblage.

Germany

In Germany, the states (Länder) had by the beginning of March in some cases closed schools where there had been a spread of infection or a risk thereof, based on the German Infection Protection Act (IfSG). However, on 13 March the Standing Conference of the Ministers of Education and Cultural Affairs of the Länder (KMK) – the cooperative body in education, science and culture – announced decision 369, which dealt with the coordination of measures and procedures to prevent the spread of infection. It included closing schools temporarily (KMK, 2020) and rested on the recommendations by the federal government’s central public health authority, the Robert Koch Institute (RKI). Within a few days, all the Länder had closed school premises with the exception of some that were open to children whose parents worked in occupations vital to society. The school-closure response of the emergent COVID-19 assemblage was uniform and consistent, in accordance with the constitution and the pre-existing pandemic plans. That is, the measures were in line with the National Pandemic Plan and the individual Pandemic Plans for the Länder (RKI, n.d.). Initially, the development of the assemblage can be seen as linked to the constitution, hence, based on a legal coding stressing the political component.

Germany is a pluralistic and corporative federal republic (cf. Rudzio, 2019). The 16 Länder have a far-reaching autonomy, and education is the responsibility of each Land. At the start, the emergent assemblage was centred on the decision-making authority of the Länder. However, the federal part in the assemblage became ever-more visual when the Ministry for Public Health (BMG) and the Ministry for the Interior summoned the crisis team, as prescribed in the IfSG. This trend was reinforced when BMG came to design the health policy – preparing legislative proposals, administrative recommendations and ordinances. Furthermore, the current state of the spread was communicated by BMG and RKI in briefings and press conferences where the media acted as the mediators of official announcements. This development can be described in terms of a re-territorialization of the assemblage by an increasingly federal-weighted hierarchy.

The school closure meant temporarily pausing the duty to attend school but not the duty to attend education. However, the agency for schooling – teaching, learning, structuring – was largely handed over to teachers, parents and students, to deal with as best as they could. This de-territorialization but also re-territorialization and re-coding of school became evident when the problems of homeschooling were gradually addressed and measures taken to promote avenues of learning, such as distance teaching and digital technology (DigitalPakt Schule, n.d.). The development in Germany was based on the contingency plans for emergencies, which explains how the state, and thereby the political component, came to dominate the assemblage by a legal coding.

Greece

Primary schools in Greece closed down after a Joint Ministerial Decision issued on 10 March 2020 (N. 16838/2020), as part of the governmental coding process in the emerging COVID-19 assemblage. As early as February, a Legislative Decree enabled a set of urgent measures to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. This included, among others, the potential closing of schools, and therefore their de-territorialization, provided that such an initiative would help towards the protection of the population against the new threat. Such a precondition was to be based on and legitimized by the verdicts of the National Committee for the Protection of Public Health against COVID-19, a scientific group of experts established in February 2020. In this way, two major components of the emerging assemblage, the political and the medical, were engaged in a process of (re-)territorialization in the handling of the pandemic.

More specifically, the government, as the political component, used the coding features of the medical component, represented by the national scientific committee against COVID-19, to legitimize the necessity of closing down schools. The measure was initiated by a reformulation of the juridical framework by the government, which at the time held an absolute majority in the Greek Parliament (legislative branch). The resulting territorialization processes enabled the potential closing of the schools provided that the measure was scientifically warranted.

In conclusion, the political and medical components developed reciprocal relations and a mutual dependence in the handling of the pandemic and may, thus, be seen as the dominant ones in the COVID-19 assemblage. It is important to highlight, though, that the coding features of the scientific committee were established upon issuing recommendations, but the decision remained a responsibility of the government. At the same time, a re-coding of the mass media component took place via daily press conferences by opening up spaces for the political and medical agents to communicate what they deemed as important and necessary in the handling of the pandemic. Education as a component was de-territorialized since no other alternatives were seen as possible. The centralized educational system of the nation was eventually subjected to a universal closure, a measure which would potentially contribute to the protection of the population against COVID-19.

Italy

Italy was the first country in Europe with a major spread of the virus. On 31 January, the Italian government declared a state of emergency. On 23 February, a law decree was issued that emphasized the evolution of the epidemiological situation and the extraordinary need and urgency to issue provisions to counter the epidemic. Law decrees are a legitimate coding process with a strong political power that is generally used in the country as provisional measures to be able to quickly issue new laws and regulations in a situation of crisis or emergency. In the February decree guidelines, paragraph 1 states the responsibility of the authorities and requirements to take all containment measures needed and the importance of adequate and proportionate management as the situation evolves epidemiologically (Gazzetta Ufficiale, 2020a). Thus, for instance, one of the first outcomes of the decree and of central interest for this study was that on 5 March all schools and universities were closed as a consequence of the law decree, with the aim to contain the spread of the virus. The following law decree, on 8 March, confirmed that distance instruction was the education mode to be implemented during the school closing (Gazzetta Ufficiale, 2020b). The Ministry of Education website offers access to a range of tools, platforms and pedagogical counselling for the school. Here, relations of exteriority and (de-)territorialization are concepts that illuminate the ways in which the assemblage holds together, in spite of being continuously dismantled and then reconstituted with new political decisions, regulations and boundaries.

One central component in this assemblage is the national scientific committee that played a crucial role in the creation of the Italian strategy to contain the spread of the virus, including the school closure from the start of the crisis, in February 2020. A technical task force was created in the first week of April. It comprised experts on different areas (besides the medical) led by Vittorio Colao, an Italian business executive, former chief executive officer (CEO) of Vodafone. This team had the task, delegated by Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, to ‘dialogue’ with the national scientific committee that has previously worked with the government in handling the crisis.

To conclude, effective coding processes that legitimize the coherence and robustness of the assemblage are exemplified by the political decisions, in consultation with the task force, that are then made into law decrees and shared through the media, at press conferences always in the evening at 6 p.m., when data about the epidemic situation are officially released. Such coding processes imply that laws and regulations are formally published through the online state national bulletin. Protezione civile (civil protection) has the leading role in handling the situation at the operative/grassroots level. Thus, in Italy, the school close-down was framed as an inevitable decision in the Italian strategy primarily at the level of the government, and this was made possible in the assemblage with the issues of law decrees as the primary coding process.

Norway

The emerging COVID-19 assemblage in Norway started to take form during March 2020 when the three components – the Norwegian Institute of Public Health, the Directorate for Health and the government, headed by the prime minister – started to hold regular press conferences broadcasted from the office of the prime minister. Later on, the minister of education became a fourth and equally important component in the coding of the Norwegian COVID-19 assemblage. The emerging COVID-19 assemblage was ameliorated through coding by almost daily communication in various media.

In the coding of the COVID-19 assemblage, the prime minister called for action and solidarity among the citizens by evoking the Norwegian concept of dugnad, a concept integral to the Norwegian national identity meaning civic duty due to a sense of community, thus re-coding the concept into a focal point for the citizens as actors within the COVID-19 assemblage. The concept was further re-coded by being contextualized and motivated by the prime minister as essential for the largest civic effort in the history of the nation during a time of peace.

In Norway, primary school premises were closed from 12 March, as decided by the Institute of Public Health, the Directorate for Health and the government, communicated by the prime minister. The main argument for the lockdown was medical, to stop the spread of the virus, with some exceptions: solutions should be provided for children of health-care personnel and other critical societal functions, and for children with special educational needs. Juridically, school lockdown was initially made possible with support by the Infection Control Act (LOV-1994-08-05-55). Closure of school premises was a means, in this scenario, to slow the spread of the virus.

One of the tools used to curb the spread of the virus was to enact new laws that enabled restrictions on citizens’ lives. Shortly after the schools closed, a temporary Corona law (Norwegian Government, 2021) was passed, granting the government the power to make decisions without involving the parliament, hence de-territorializing the parliament by temporarily shifting the juridical power to the government.

To be able to homeschool children, the government enabled the option of applying for an allowance during the lockdown, an allowance that earlier was earmarked for taking care of sick children. Juridically it was, according to our understanding, already possible for private primary and lower-secondary education at home (LOV-1998-07-17-61, §2). Thus, de-territorializing Norwegian schools was furthered by the possibility of economic aid and a stronger coding of homes as part of schooling in Norway. An additional motivation in the re-coding of schooling was that many could work from home and others could use flexible work hours to accommodate children’s needs at home. The schools’ approach to homeschooling was primarily through digital means, which was possible, to a large degree, in Norway, due to a well-developed digital infrastructure.

Consequently, a continuous coding and re-coding of the parts of the emerging COVID-19 assemblage by the Norwegian Institute of Public Health, the Directorate for Health, the Minister of education, and the government as the dominant part, enabled de-territorialization of the different parts of the assemblage. Thus, the lockdown of schools in order to curb the spread of the virus was made possible through de-territorialization and re-coding of schooling. The process of the school lockdown was aided by juridical means, the digital infrastructure and communication through various media.

Poland

The decision to close down schools was juridically as well as politically coded through a conflation of executive and advisory powers at the government’s disposal. As a parliamentary republic, Poland’s government structure is centred on the council of ministers with the prime minister as a head of government. Specifically, a close co-operation between the Chancellery of the Prime Minister and the Government Centre for Security (as executive bodies) along with the Government Crisis Management Team (as advisory body) homogenized the responses within the COVID-19 assemblage, bringing forth the school lockdown. This politically coded measure to protect the country from the virus as ‘an outer enemy’ thus strengthened the degree of territorialization on the part of the government. The Chief Sanitary Inspectorate as a medicine agent and part of the assemblage tentatively endorsed the decision of a national school lockdown. The Chief Sanitary Inspectorate foregrounded the decision as a logistically difficult operation but necessary and well-advised when done at the right moment in time and paired with additional measures such as sanitary controls at the borders. Such framing weakened the degree of territorialization of the Chief Sanitary Inspectorate. Subsequently, this de-territorialization on its part seemed politically coded as the government’s powers of deciding the right moment for a school lockdown reduced the decision to a matter of time and discretion.

The decision by the government was juridically coded as it was preceded by a special law on ‘Particular solutions regarding the prevention, counteracting and combatting COVID-19 as well as other infectious diseases that cause crises situation’ (Dziennik Ustaw 2020, pozycja 374), passed in the two chambers of the Polish Parliament. This act also provided grounds for care allowance for parents as individual agents to provide care for their children. Through ordinances by the Minister of National Education, distance education was enforced, except for the cases where this was not practically possible or advisable; for example, in special education. These politically and juridically coded measures reinforced the totality of the government’s territorialization process. The substitution of instruction by distance education (Dziennik Ustaw 2020, pozycja 493) markedly interfered with the current state of affairs both juridically and practically as distance education had previously only been allowed in continuing education; for example, in adult education. Extensive and nationwide initiatives for distance education by the Ministry of National Education followed the school lockdown (state-owned e-platforms, public service TV and radio). Subsequently, through the de-territorialization processes of the two components of the COVID-19 assemblage – that is, educational and medicine actors – the government, as another assemblage part, strengthened its degree of territorialization. Remarkably, the agency of educational actors – for example, schools as both care and instruction providers – could therefore be conveniently circumscribed and motivated by practical reason in a logic of event.

To conclude, the vagueness of medical coding as its distinct feature, and in concert with the mobilization of juridical coding, enabled the government (as the political component) to claim the necessity of the ensuing school lockdown.

Sweden

As mentioned, Swedish primary schools did not close in mid-March as a general measure but remained open. The coding impact of the Public Health Agency (PHA) was visible in the Swedish context as the producer of recommendations on how to behave and statistics. Recommendations from PHA are not legally binding, but target groups are expected to follow them. PHA (like all Swedish public agencies) is regulated by the government through laws, state budgets and specific commissions but has its own autonomy in relation to the government. Thus, medical and political actors are always interconnected in territorialization processes that have been ongoing since the 19th century (cf. Rothstein, 1996). The legitimacy of PHA is related to the division of labour between the government and its public agencies and is a fundamental part of the Swedish constitution and reflects the relations between the state and the citizens, including far-reaching human rights and freedoms. Thereby, PHA also became the dominating component of the COVID-19 assemblage – through its coding and ongoing territorialization processes between PHA and political agents (cf. Ludvigsson, 2020).

The fact that the recommendations regarding the pandemic came from a public agency implied that everyone was expected to follow them, including schools. The recommendations – and their societal consequences – were picked up by media actors and turned into newsworthy events that even strengthened the assemblage. Schools had to respond and take precautionary measures and ensure that teachers and students could adhere to them. This demanded a re-coding of the school actors as preventers of COVID-19 infections; however, they still retained their own autonomy as an educational component.

This COVID-19 assemblage was based on the legitimacy of PHA, and interacting responses of medical, political, media and school actors. However, nobody had the legitimacy to command the schools to close. Swedish children have a duty to go to school (premises). In addition, a Swedish government needs support from the parliament to be able to act in these matters, combined with a strong local self-government.

The territorialization processes of the COVID-19 assemblage were further strengthened in mid-March when new legislation (SFS 2020:148; SFS 2020:430) came into force, meaning that local authorities or the government now had the possibility to command a school lockdown (e.g. Ericson and Wilske, 2020). It also sometimes happened that a local primary school was closed when deemed necessary by medical actors. This implied a potential de-territorialization of the school since the closing of upper-secondary schools showed that distance education could not replace all aspects of schooling. Many students became socially vulnerable when they lost their everyday life in school, including food, friends and caring (Henning Loeb and Windsor, 2020). Thus, keeping the schools open was conceived of as a necessary response to the pandemic, following a logic of events based on what was constitutionally possible to decide and every child’s right to education, and to keep parents in jobs for the protection of vital societal functions and critical infrastructure.

Comparative analyses

The assemblages that we identified in our cases emerged as responses to national contextual matters. However, all could also respond to information from actors situated outside their national boundaries, such as information from the World Health Organization (WHO) and the European Union. Most European countries closed their schools, except Iceland and Sweden. The decisions concerning schools were taken at about the same time – in February–March 2020. This was a time when the virus had started to spread rapidly in society, and COVID-19 was declared a pandemic by the WHO. We found several similarities among our national cases regarding timelines and types of assembling components. However, this does not mean that the countries acted and responded in similar ways, even though they could monitor each other and that they were expected to harmonize their work. The individual components might in one sense look similar but, as interacting components of a national assemblage, they had different properties in comparison across the countries.

A similarity among the cases was that decisions to close the schools, or to keep them open, were taken by the governments, though in all cases except one they had to turn to lawmakers in order to revise the legislation to make a closure of schools possible. National contexts and procedures were important for the potential expressive features of the political component. Clearly, juridical components were vital, since they ranged from constitutional matters to school laws and regulations that all have different kinds of status. Ministers had different spaces of action in relation to the parliament. As autonomous components, there were big differences across our cases regarding political and juridical components, even though conclusions were the same: to close primary schools.

Medical advice was picked up by political components and was used for gaining legitimacy and to further stress the need for the juridical component to respond. No doubt medical components strengthened the assemblage, but it played out differently. In some cases, it happened that political components/governments made decisions against medical advice given regarding the schools; in other cases, medical components were dominant in the decision-making. We also note a variety of specialists, ranging from public health and epidemiology to infection control and virus research, representing different institutions and having different constitutional relations to the government. Taken together, there were differences across the cases regarding which was the dominant component, the political or the medical.

In all cases, the mass media were important for the coding of COVID-19 assemblages in two ways. Firstly, by presentations of the pandemic and analyses of mitigation actions, the mass media provided the assemblage with a public face. Secondly, the mass media seemed to have ambitions to be instructive in relation to competent pandemic behaviour among the population, presenting the spread of the pandemic and how this was related to individual behaviour. This also comprehended the school question. In sum, the mass media were important not only in keeping the assemblage together, but also in trying to educate the population to behave in a competent way, and thereby mitigating the pandemic. However, these mitigation efforts seemed to be of different kinds – over time as well as place – in attempts to govern the population, either in terms of threats of constraints and lockdowns or by appealing to rational behaviour and reason. Thus, the mass media, too, differed across the cases in their specific national mitigating contexts.

The closing of schools, finally, was ordered for political and/or medical reasons and implied a de-territorialization of schooling. Our findings indicate that closure of school premises has an impact on kinds of coding – what we here will label re-coding – by means of instructions about alternative ways to do education. Thus, we will argue, distance education means a re-coding of schools that accordingly embraces a de-territorialization of the school as an autonomous component. Examples of such re-coding are prescribing distance education or computer-based instruction given at home instead of classroom teaching. Here we also note involvement of the media (TV) in some countries. Political and juridical components interacted closely, since in some countries children have the duty to go to the school premises and in other countries they have a duty to learn, signifying that the responsibility for learning in a higher degree is a responsibility for the parents and caretakers. We also identified worries about the social consequences of closing schools; for instance, in terms of demands for the social care of children, increasing risks for social (e.g. digital) exclusion. In some countries there were also concerns regarding problems of maintaining vital societal functions if the parents had to stay at home. This also points to vital aspects of schools that are perhaps sometimes taken for granted but become visible in times of a pandemic.

Previous post Experiment to Teach Multiple Melting Phenomena in Semicrystalline Polymers Using Differential Scanning Calorimetry
Next post Educational achievement disparities between second-generation and non-immigrant students: Do school characteristics account for tracking effects?