Sweden got schooling during COVID right

September 7, 2020 By Alan Salzberg

Sweden took a different approach to the virus than most of the world.  Rather than blanket lockdowns, they sought to protect the old, and let the virus slowly run its course among the young, so that deaths are minimized and hospitals are not overrun.  

Near the beginning of the pandemic, with much of Europe locking down, this approach was harshly criticized.  And both virus levels and deaths in Sweden were initially high.  However, deaths peaked in April, and virus levels followed a bit later (this seems strange since deaths usually follow virus levels and not vice-versa, but Sweden did an especially poor job initially of protecting people in nursing homes--though not nearly as bad as, say, NY state).  

Currently, Sweden -- a country of 10 million people -- has only 200 or fewer cases per day. This rate is lower than much of already-low Europe. And deaths from Covid are at about 0.1 per million per day, much lower than the US, which is at about 3 per million, and also lower than most of Europe (https://www.cnn.com/videos/health/2020/09/03/sweden-covid-19-coronavirus-pandemic-response-foster-ctw-vpx.cnni ).

This past week, the total death rate in the US surpassed Sweden's. The US tally is 584 people per million (and rising fairly rapidly), compared to Sweden's 577 per million. Sweden is a little less dense in terms of population than the US, but the difference is not huge (especially considering that much of northern Sweden is basicallyuninhabited and the population is concentrated in Stockholm and the south).

But the real success story in Sweden regards education.

Sweden was right about schools. Sweden never had a full shutdown, and kept most schools open throughout the pandemic (high schools and universities were closed, but reopened June 15).  The result?   1.8 million school children had fewer than 12 hospitalizations and there were ZERO deaths among children.  Among teachers, the infection rate was no worse than the community infection rate (see Dr. Martin Kulldorff's interview in https://www.contagionlive.com/news/how-sweden-calculates-covid19-deaths ).  In terms of school-aged children, Sweden did as well or better than most of Europe, including places like Finland that barely saw any virus (https://www.reuters.com/article/us-health-coronavirus-sweden-schools/swedens-health-agency-says-open-schools-did-not-spur-pandemic-spread-among-children-idUSKCN24G2IS). The low rates extended to younger people in general -- only 28 of Sweden's 5,800 deaths were people under 40 (https://www.statista.com/statistics/1107913/number-of-coronavirus-deaths-in-sweden-by-age-groups ).   Sweden's message to the world regarding schools: open schools with no masks (https://fortune.com/2020/08/05/sweden-anders-tegnell-face-masks-school-opening-coronavirus-covid-19-europe/ )

Sweden success was due to recognizing two things early on that were ignored by most countries:

1) There is a huge difference in harm by age, so use resources to protect the old and be less restrictive on young people; and

2) Compliance is better if guidelines are more tolerable.  Thus, Sweden established guidelines that are doable for months.  Rather than force businesses to close, Sweden asked people to use social distancing, and only barred large gatherings.

We in the US have failed to learn these lessons of Covid, at least as they relate to education.  As the school year gets underway throughout the US (but not NYC, which can't get its act together), many school districts are providing little or no meaningful in-person instruction for their children out of an unfounded fear of Covid. They would be better off sending their children to school where they will receive far superior education (especially compared to asynchronous Zoomed lessons at home) and will be no worse off in terms of Covid (see this article again).  

Many US universities have imposed severe restrictions on students' interactions for those who have returned to campus. College students are being chastised and even suspended for socializing, in an example of terrible overreach by universities (see https://www.nbcnewyork.com/news/local/nyu-suspends-over-20-students-for-violating-covid-rules/2604047/ ).  At the most extreme, some colleges have closed or are closing down and sending the children back.  For example, SUNY Oneonta is sending their students home due to an outbreak.  The result? Dozens or hundreds of infected students (many of whom do not know they are infected) will return to homes with older parents and relatives, where transmission may mean death instead of the mild illness it would be if contained among young people. This is shameful.

University communities that stay the course and keep classes open are more likely to have better overall outcomes, simply due to the fact that the overwhelming majority of younger people do not get that ill when they contract Covid, and at universities, these young people have less interaction with older people. Universities should focus on protecting older teachers and staff, while still allowing students the educational and social environment that makes college worthwhile.