Reopening Child Care: How Has Denmark Done It?

And what lessons can you learn?
May 6, 2020
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Like everyone right now, you’re probably wondering what reopening your childcare in a pandemic would even look like.

What can you expect, or prepare for? What’s it going to feel like to have children coming back through your doors again? How do three-year-olds even handle social distancing?

These are uncharted waters, and nobody’s got concrete answers.

But if you’re looking for some idea of what’s to come, you can look to Denmark.

Denmark was one of the first countries in Europe to announce a lockdown, and the first to reopen its child care and primary schools. It’s not a complete reopening, or a return to normal — children are coming back to a daily schedule very different than the one they left behind. For the rest of the world, it’s a model of how (and if) child care can work under the pandemic.

I called up some child care settings in Denmark to hear how things are going, and combed through the Danish Health Authority’s guidelines for how settings can safely open back up. If you’re interested in getting these rules in full, you can download our translated guide at the bottom of this page.

Returning to the ‘new normal’ of child care

The day starts with the first wave of drop-offs. Parents are no longer allowed to walk their children up to the door, and the settings coordinate drop-offs in staggered intervals to avoid crowding. Trine Corell-Kramer, leader of Smedegårdens Børnehus, used plastic tape to set up orderly lanes for the parents as they wait to drop their children off. Calling children in room by room allows the staff to minimise crowding and avoid physical contact with the parents.

“The lanes make things a bit easier to organise everything, and I want the parents and children to feel secure. A number of parents have actually said this drop-off method is way easier, which I think is pretty funny,” Trine laughs.

Plastic tape and rope cordons are a new sight in Denmark’s post-lockdown child care settings, and part of the country’s strategy for minimising the risk of infection. They’re used to block off inside spaces and outdoor playgrounds into smaller, more manageable areas, to help control how many children are gathered together at any given time.

Managing squads of toddlers

A key component of the Danish Health Authority’s post-lockdown model requires child care settings to divide the children into small, fixed groups of between three to six children.

These small groups help the staff make sure children are evenly spaced between different rooms and activities, and can keep tabs on who’s had contact with whom. These groups are the basic unit of each day, and all activities take place in small groups. Large, formal gatherings of children aren’t allowed right now.

Hanne Kühn, the leader of Valby Lillefri kindergarten, divided her setting of 40 children down into groups of five or six. One staff member supervises the same group every day, and each group has their own designated bag of sandbox toys, which gets disinfected once a day. The Danish Health Authority’s reopening plan asks that supervising staff members stay exclusively connected to their designated group of children as much as possible.

“The parents were a little surprised to see that we had divided the building into smaller units, using plastic tape to mark off boundaries. That way we could have the smaller groups of children in their own spaces, and we’d change every four hours,” Hanne says. “But I think the children have pretty quickly gotten used to things, and our team is great at making time to explain to each child why we’re doing things the way we are.”

The big ideas

Preparing for reopening

Denmark’s child care centres reopened their doors on April 15th. Over the long Easter weekend, many teams met to make the necessary logistical and physical preparations.

Here are some of the key steps they took to prepare:

  • Modifying provisions – The Danish Health Authority’s guidelines recommend removing elements from classrooms and playrooms that might harbour the virus, or present a challenge to daily cleaning. Staff removed any toys that were tricky to disinfect, and only kept the mats and rugs that could be washed and dried daily.
  • Splitting up the children – The Danish Health Authority recommend groups of three for children three years old or younger, and groups of five or six for children over the age of three. In preparing to reopen, Danish providers have gone through their rosters and created these subgroups, with a dedicated adult attached to each group. Grouping familiar faces together, Trine says, helps children get a bit of normality back in their day.
  • Marking off inside spaces – Striped plastic tape has been the tool of choice to separate indoor and outdoor spaces into more manageable sectors. Staff create daily plans that allow them to move their small groups of children between spaces while avoiding crowding, or excessive exposure between groups.
  • Getting supplies in order – Liquid soap, hand sanitiser, disinfectant and latex gloves keep the whole operation running. Trine has made sure her setting has a healthy supply of cleaning and protective materials, but gloves and aprons in particular have been in short supply. “I’ve been buying a little extra, just in case we run dry. I’d have to close down if I couldn’t watch out for my employees, so I can’t have that,” she says.
  • Hanging signs and posters – The Danish Health Authority has provided informational posters on reducing the risk of infection, and asked child care centres to hang these at building entrances and where adult staff and parents convene.

Putting the little ones first

Over at Smedegårdens Børnehus, Trine says the 60 or so children in attendance have adjusted well to their small playgroups and altered routines. Before they opened their doors again, her 22 staff members met to set up these small groups of children, trying to group friends and familiar caregivers together.

Especially when children are returning to an unfamiliar daily schedule, it’s important that they’re surrounded with familiar faces. So far, Trine has heard more concerns from parents than the children themselves about being grouped up with familiar playmates.

“It’s hard to satisfy everybody here. But there’s also a lot of the little ones that have discovered new friends in their new playgroups — So I guess when you can’t pick your exact playmates each day, there’s still something positive in that,” Trine says.

The coronavirus rules we all know by heart by now just don’t connect in the same way with young children. While maintaining a two-metre distance is all well and good for the grown-ups, holding toddlers to the same expectations isn’t quite as easy.

“It can be hard to hold that two-metre distance. It just doesn’t always happen when you’re dealing with three- and four-year-olds,” Trine says. “We need to be warm and caring towards the children, to be able to hug them and be close to them — if we can’t do that, then we can hardly do our jobs. I think if you’re opening back up, you should know that children are going to be close to one another.”

For the little ones, being back with close friends and familiar adults tends to dissolve any worries about how daily life might look a little different. Sure, not everything is quite as it used to be — but the people and things that matter most are still there. Settings have been finding a balance between helping their children understand the situation, and not stoking undue panic.

“With the littlest ones, it’s hard to explain the coronavirus to them. But the older ones, we talk to them about what’s going on. We tell them that they can hug their friends, but not everybody,” Trine says. “We’ve got to make sure we don’t make the children afraid, or get too hysteric about everything. They’ve got to be able to be children.”

Proper hand-washing protocol

Hand-washing is a cornerstone of the reopening plan. When in doubt, wash thoroughly and often, using liquid soap and water. Hand sanitizer that is 70% ethanol or stronger is the Danish Health Authority’s second preference, followed by disposable wet napkins.

Here’s when child care providers have been instructed to wash their hands, or help their children in doing so:

  • Upon arrival in the morning, and reentering the building throughout the day
  • Whenever one’s hands are visibly dirty
  • After using the toilet
  • After coughing or sneezing into one’s hands, or into a disposable tissue
  • Before eating
  • When going from one room to another, or between groups of children
  • After physical contact with others

Trine says her setting has stocked up on hand lotion too, to help staff and children avoid dry skin from such frequent hand washing.

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Taking it to the playground

Much of the day now takes place outside. For safe social distancing, the Danish Health Authority recommends child care settings provide a minimum floor space of 4 to 6 square meters (43 to 64 square feet) for each child. It can be tricky to accommodate everybody indoors while providing this space, so many settings just take to the playground instead.

Being outside so much means a lot of familiar activities are off the menu, and Hanne says this is one of the hardest parts for her setting. Her children can’t always be inside when they want to, or doing exactly what they want to do whenever they’d like.

“We had a couple of weeks of nice spring weather, but last week got pretty rainy and grim, which wasn’t so nice. But we stuck it out — we only went inside to eat, one or two groups at a time, then came back outside. We just had our rain gear on, and it went alright,” Hanne says.

While those under 3 years old might go inside more often for nap time, most of the children have gotten used to spending their days outside. Sometimes they’ll go for a walk or a bike ride, but otherwise it’s self-directed play: a game of football on the field, digging in the sandbox, or a turn on the swing set.

How to keep it all clean

A post-lockdown child care setting requires thorough and frequent cleaning. This can add even more demands on staff already busy with adjusting to the new rules — both Hanne and Trine hired part-time employees to help with the daily cleanings.

Here is the Danish Health Authority’s recommendations for what, when and how to clean:

  • Toilets should be cleaned twice daily using standard cleaning products, and sprayed with disinfectant after each use.
  • All high-contact surfaces, including tables, door handles, faucets and light switches should be disinfected twice daily.
  • Laundry, such as blankets or bedding, should be only used by one child, and washed every day in water at a minimum of 80°C.
  • Toys should be cleaned at the end of each day, and any toys that are not easily disinfected should be put away until the end of the coronavirus pandemic.
  • Staff electronics such as tablets and computers should be disinfected before and after use, and personal mobile phones should be cleaned at least once a day.
  • Garbage bins should be emptied before they’re completely full, and at least once a day.

Cleaning takes place whenever there’s a break in the action — in the middle of the day, while children are eating or napping, or at the end of the day, once the children have gone home. Trine says her team has gone above and beyond to all pitch in with cleaning duties, especially the kitchen staff.

“The whole team has been great at supporting one another, and working more than they’re used to just to make sure that everything stays together,” she says.

Working with the parents

Both Hanne and Trine say that the parents in their communities have been strongly supportive through all these new adjustments.

Right now, one of the most important things is keeping clear, consistent and transparent communication with parents. Providers should explain what they’re doing and why. This transparency helps everyone feel more secure, which is paramount right now.

“I think it’s the adults’ reactions that are most important. If they’re afraid or anxious, the children reflect that. So if we’re calm, caring and just show that we’re happy to see them, I think they’ll show the same,” Trine says.

Prior to reopening, Hanne used Famly to brief the parents at her setting on what might be different during the reopening, what they could expect, and how they could help get prepared. She says she’s had very little negative pushback from parents, though her setting still isn’t running at its regular capacity.

“There are some parents that are still choosing to keep their kids at home entirely,” Hanne says. “I don’t comment on it — I just say it’s fine, it’s your choice.”  

Supporting staff

Some nurseries in Denmark, including Hanne and Trine’s, have reduced their opening hours to make things a little easier. But this doesn’t mean there’s less work for the staff.

Reopening is hard work. It requires a bigger team on hand, and close adherence to a set of unfamiliar and specific rules. And no matter what, it requires coming to terms with the unfamiliar, being willing to learn on the move, and taking mistakes in stride.

“I think we felt most of the uncertainty and stress before we reopened our doors, but we still feel it sometimes. We just accept that we might make mistakes, that we’re learning and getting better at all this each day. So if someone takes the wrong lunch, or forgets to clean a toilet, we just remember it for the next time,” Trine says. “We talk together if we’re worried. But now that we’re at work, we just think about doing the best we can, for Denmark and for the children we’re caring for.”

Below, you can download the full translated reopening guidance that from the Danish authorities, along with recommendations recently published by a coalition of UK nursery groups that they’d like the government to make.

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Official Danish Government Reopening Advice

Guidance from the Danish Health Ministry, translated in full to English.

Picture of a Guidance document
UK Nursery Covid-19 Response Group Recommendations

The full recommendations from a working group of over 70 nursery chains in the UK.

Please note: here at Famly we love sharing creative activities for you to try with the children at your setting, but you know them best. Take the time to consider adaptions you might need to make so these activities are accessible and developmentally appropriate for the children you work with. Just as you ordinarily would, conduct risk assessments for your children and your setting before undertaking new activities, and ensure you and your staff are following your own health and safety guidelines.