High schools, unis slowly reopen in Iceland

REYKJAVIK (AFP) – Iceland’s secondary schools and universities began reopening on Monday, as the country started easing measures put in place seven weeks ago to curb the spread of the new coronavirus.

The vast island in the North Atlantic has confirmed 1,799 cases of the illness and 10 deaths, but the number of new cases has ranged between zero and three since April 23.

A study published in April in the New England Journal of Medicine attributed Iceland’s success at containing the pandemic to its widespread testing, having tested more people than any other country and starting a month before the first case was even confirmed.

As of Sunday, Iceland had carried out tests on 50,406 people, or 14 per cent of its 364,000-strong population.

The aggressive testing programme appears to have helped slow the spread of the virus by allowing health authorities to detect people who were infected and contagious but had no symptoms or thought they just had a cold or the flu.

When people test positive, they have to self-isolate at home until 14 days after their fever subsides or until they test negative for the virus. And anybody who comes in contact with them has to self-quarantine for two weeks.

File photo shows a view of the 50m outdoor pool at the biggest swimming pool of Iceland, Laugardalslaug, closed due to the novel Coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic in Reykjavik, Iceland. PHOTO: AFP

The University of Iceland in Reykjavik, which has 13,000 students, predicted a slow and gradual reopening on Monday, principal Jon Atli Benediktsson told AFP, and the same was expected at its six other campuses across the country.

Of Iceland’s 38 secondary schools, it was mainly vocational schools that were resuming classes in smaller groups.

At these schools, which often involve practical classes, the approaching end-of-year exams must be conducted in person and not online.

At the Taekniskolinn school in Reykjavik where students can study hairdressing, carpentry, goldsmithery and computer programming, a trickle of students arrived in the morning, bundled up in puffer jackets against the blustery weather.

Only around a quarter of students were expected for the next two weeks.

Egill Arnason, a 17-year-old carpentry student, told AFP he had no concerns about returning to the classroom.

“It’s good to be back to meet my friends,” he said as he worked on a corner of a drawer. “It was okay to study from home but it was starting to get boring.”

Most general secondary schools contacted by AFP said they would not be reopening and would instead continue distance learning for the last three weeks of the academic year, avoiding the need to find tricky solutions to social distancing in classrooms.

Those students will take their final exams exclusively online.

Nursery schools and primary schools, which have remained open albeit with reduced hours, resumed regular schedules on Monday.

Iceland adopted a first slew of restrictions on March 16 to limit the spread of COVID-19, and added further measures on March 24.

Hair salons and dentists were also to resume business on Monday, though swimming pools, gyms and bars were to remain shuttered.

Gatherings are limited to 50 as of Monday, from 20 previously.