First, it was only some sad news from the other side of the world. Then it started to spread rapidly and uncontrollably, getting closer and closer day by day. No one could predict where it would hit next. And all in sudden it was all over the world. The spring of 2020 will not be forgotten. It showed the dark side of life, but also underlined the fundamental meaning of helping and taking care of one and another.
In Finland, the first coronavirus cases were diagnosed in late January, and the seriousness of the situation became concrete on Thursday, 18th of March, when our Government declared a state of emergency to our country. All public meetings and events were cancelled, and all public spaces were closed. Although all kind of outdoor activities were allowed and recommended, people were asked to stay at home as much as possible. The time of distance work and learning had begun.
The Ministry of Education and Culture ordered to start distance education from pre-primary to higher education but to keep early childhood education units in operation. This order ensured that parents in sectors that are critical to the functioning of society could go to work. Preschool and 1-3 grade education were also provided as contact teaching for the same reason. However, the Government outlined strongly that all parents, who can arrange childcare at home, should do so. Finnish people mostly do as authoritative tell and at the beginning of exceptional circumstances more adults than children were present in Finnish kindergartens.
Like we all know, Covid-19 changed everyday life totally, and new ways of living had to be adopted quickly in all levels of societies. The time of new normal had arrived. In Finnish early childhood education, assuming the new normal started from discussions about fees, risk of infections, and lay-offs. Should parents, whose children are staying at home, get some compensation? Should staff be laid off to make savings? How dangerous is it to go to work? Will I get coronavirus as well?
Quite soon, the viewpoint turned to children and especially to those children, who stayed at home. How are they doing? How do they experience the forced separation from their peers and so-called normal life? Do their parents have enough resources to take care of them? These reflections caused a need to keep in contact and support interaction from a distance. Professionals realized that children’ s need to belong to their peer group hasn’t disappeared anyway. Neither has the need to be seen, heard, and loved.
A lot of new procedures were developed to meet these needs. In some units, staff attached notes to the windows, so the absent children could come to the play yard after closing time and read them with their parents. A habit of putting teddy bears by the window sight speared to homes as well. Elsewhere staff recorded short video-greetings with children present and sent them to homes via digital channels. And the other way around, kindergartens received messages from homes. Parents were supported in their daily lives by giving tips on what they could do with children. Some specific materials and different kinds of tasks to support children’s learning were made and sent to homes. Also, many private operators, especially from the music, art, and sports industry, produced their materials for the same purpose and loaded it online without any charge. Here are some examples:
The strong restrictions from the Finnish Government seemed to help, and the number of infections started to low little by little. Children returned to contact teaching on Thursday, 14th of May. Like we all know, life is not the same as it used to be, and many instructions are still valid. In Finnish kindergartens, it means, for example, avoiding unnecessary contacts, not entering if any symptoms of illness, looseness in spatial organization, not allowing children to take food or handle other’s dishes, and paying extremely close attention to hygienic. In addition, it is recommended to make use of the nearby outdoor spaces and natural environments to implement learning goals set for early childhood education even more than before.
During the summer break, Finland has done preparations for the next academic year. Minister of Education has allocated 14 million euros to early childhood education providers to equalize the effects of coronavirus emergency conditions. The grant is intended to support the development, learning, and wellbeing of children and to develop a digital culture of early childhood education to offset the effects of exceptional circumstances. Besides, the purpose is to support the learning and development of immigrant or foreign language speaking children and children with special needs or lower socio-economic backgrounds.
Because it is impossible to predict whether the situation with the pandemic will be as good as it is right now, it is impossible to be 100 % prepared. At this moment, at the end of July, it seems that early years education along with grades 1-9 will be arranged in kindergartens and schools for every child. Hopefully, this will be the situation also in the middle of August, when the summer break in Finland will be over. We hope that we will see a lot of happy faces when children return in some cases after a four-month break to their familiar kindergarten and see their friends and teachers again. We will take the best out of this exceptional period and use what we have learned to support children’s wellbeing and learning in multiple ways. As they say, life will not return to normal; this is a new normal. We will make it a better normal for every Finnish child than the previous normal was.
Dr. Piia Roos (teacher of early years, PhD) has over 10 years of experience as a teacher and a leader in Finnish ECEC centers. For the past 10 years she worked as a teacher in vocational college for practical nurses majoring in early childhood education. Now Roos works as an educator and consult through her own company. In addition, she is a visiting lecture at Tampere University of Applied Science, and a partner and pedagogical expert in VisitEDUfinn Ltd. Her special interests are children’s perspective and participation.
Ms. Rauhala (B.A.) is an educational sciences student at the University of Turku with studies also in the fields of psychology, business and HR, and sociology. As an education major, she is passionate about lifelong learning and the Finnish education system. She believes in change through education. In addition, Ms. Rauhala loves to learn new languages. She completed an Erasmus + university exchange in Spain as a part of her studies and wants to work toward everyone getting international learning opportunities. Ms. Rauhala is working for VisitEDUfinn part-time while finishing her studies.