Political Shake-Up in East Iceland

Neskaupstaður

A controversial municipal council decision regarding area schools has sparked protests, and led to the dissolution of the council majority. Talks are currently being held for the formation of a new council majority, while school employees and many parents continue to object to the proposed changes.

Combining area schools

The story begins in Fjarðabyggð (pop. 5,070) in east Iceland, comprising the towns of Neskaupstaður, Reyðarfjörður, Eskifjörður, Fáskrúðsfjörður, Stöðvarfjörður, Mjóifjörður and Breiðdalsvík. Its municipal council has nine seats, divided between three parties: the Independence Party (four seats), the Progressive Party (three seats), and the regional party Fjarðalistinn (two seats). Up until recently, the council majority consisted of the latter two parties.

Last month, a special work group of representatives of these parties sought to make changes to the school system of the region. As Austurfrétt reported, this would entail combining all regional preschools under the auspices of Leikskóli Fjarðabyggðar, while doing away with the position of assistant principal; combining all regional grade schools under the auspices of Grunnskóli Fjarðabyggðar, also doing away with the assistant principal position; and combining all regional music schools under similar auspices, with the assistant music school director reduced to a 75% position.

The objection

When this proposal was put before the municipal council for a vote, all voted in favour except for one person, Fjarðalistinn representative Hjördís Helga Seljan Þóroddsdóttir. She contends that the move would degrade the quality of the regional schools, and objected to what she said was a lack of cooperation between the council and the schools to work out a solution.

The objection came as a surprise to other members of the council, and while the measure was passed, eight to one, the Progressive Party later announced it was ending its coalition with Fjarðalistinn.

New coalition, same problems

The Progressive Party and the Independence Party are reportedly now in talks over the creation of a new municipal council majority. Should those talks prove successful, challenges over the schooling matter will still remain.

The Icelandic Teachers’ Union has objected to the proposal, which is due to go into effect in August. The union contends that the council does not have the authority to make changes of this degree. In particular, they cite regional law on residential democracy.

Similar objections have been raised by parents’ associations, citing laws for both primary schools and preschools that major decisions must be made in cooperation with parents, which these parents contend was not done.

A petition on the matter, calling for these proposed changes to be ceased, has garnered some 750 signatures. How the municipal council will respond remains to be seen.

Municipalities in Iceland Raise School Lunch Fees

iceland education

School lunches and after-school activities will cost parents in Iceland more this year than last, RÚV reports. The country’s eight largest municipalities are all raising the fees for these services, though mostly in line with price level increases. The CEO of national parents’ association Home and School expressed concern about the changes, which he says will leave some parents with no choice but to cancel their food subscriptions or withdraw their children from after-school programming.

Despite being encouraged to keep their fee hikes to a minimum, all of the country’s largest municipalities have raised fees for school meals, after-school activities, and afternoon snacks. The fees also vary greatly between municipalities, with the highest and lowest fees for school lunches showing a difference of 71%. As last year, parents in Seltjarnarnes pay the highest fees for elementary school services and those with children in Mosfellsbær pay the lowest fees.

Public health issue

Arnar Ævarsson, CEO of Home and School, a national parents’ association, says the price hikes will have the greatest impact on those who are less fortunate, disabled, or immigrants, and those who have the smallest social support networks. The consequence can be very serious, and Arnar points out that stress, anxiety, and guilt that parents or guardians might feel over not being able to provide their children with the same things other children receive also impact the children themselves.

Arnar says there’s a need to change the rhetoric around school meals and discuss them as a public health issue rather than a service. “In the long term, there is a risk that poor nutrition will later affect the health of individuals. Then this is a cost that comes down elsewhere in the system,” Arnar stated. School meals are also a social equaliser when all children can partake in them, he added.

What’s Being Done About Homophobia in Iceland’s Schools?

Rainbow flags Höfði homophobia iceland

Iceland is often in the foreign media for its position on many indexes for human rights, equality, and social justice. Although the LGBT+ community enjoys many rights in Iceland, homophobia still remains a problem, especially in schools.

If you are interested in what the official policy is on LGBT+ students is in the Icelandic school system, you may find the official Reykjavík City website helpful.

Concerning specific steps taken to ensure the safety and well being of LGBT+ students in Iceland, there have been many initiatives and task forces lately to confront these problems, including a 2021 Task Force on Gender Neutral Facilities in Schools and a 2022 Task Force on the Status of Gender and LGBT+ Education in Reykjavík City Schools.

Currently, Reykjavík City has a 2019-2023 Human Rights and Democracy Action Plan, which entails both a report on the state of the rights of sexual minorities in Iceland, in addition to suggestions for improvement. Some suggestions include not assuming heterosexuality in schools, more open sexual education, and more mental health resources for students.

Reykjavík is also a part of the Rainbow Cities Network, a platform for cities devoted to improving LGBT+ issue. Among other requirements for certification in the Rainbow Cities Network, public employees must undergo training in issues relating to the LGBT+ community.

Homophobia in Icelandic schools is also a part of a broader discussion of bullying and mental health in young people, which has recently surfaced in the news.

We have also reported on a significant case of hate speech in Iceland, in which an individual was fined for his 2015 online comments that were found to be homophobic. Although originally acquitted, his comments were ultimately found to be in violation of Article 233 (a) of the General Penal Code, which forbids defamation, libel, threats, and discrimination. The court ruled that his comments were “serious, severely hurtful and prejudicial,” and he was fined ISK 100,000 (around EUR 800 at the time).

 

Iceland Significantly Relaxes COVID-19 Quarantine Regulations

Individuals who have been potentially exposed to COVID-19 outside of their home or place of residence in Iceland will no longer be required to quarantine, and will instead be required to take special infection precaution (smitgát). Individuals who have potentially been exposed to COVID-19 in their home or place of residence will still be required to quarantine, except those who are triple-vaccinated, who will only need to take special infection precaution and undergo a COVID-19 test. Primary- and preschool-aged children are exempt from special infection precaution but must quarantine if someone in their home has tested positive for COVID-19.

Decreased absence from school for children

These sweeping changes to Iceland’s quarantine regulations take effect at midnight. They were implemented by Health Minister Willum Þór Þórsson and are in line with recommendations from Iceland’s Chief Epidemiologist Þórólfur Guðnason. The changes aim to reduce strain on testing centres and lessen the impact Iceland’s current wave of infection is having on workplaces and schools. The changes will affect school operations significantly, as children who have potentially been exposed to COVID-19 at school will no longer be required to quarantine as a result.

Chief Epidemiologist: Restrictions must be relaxed in stages

The Omicron variant is responsible for more than 90% of infections in Iceland’s current wave, and the Delta variant for under 10%. Local data shows the Omicron variant leads to much lower rates of hospitalisation as compared to the Delta variant (0.2-0.3% versus 2%), which has led many to call for relaxing social restrictions, including deCODE genetics CEO Kári Stefánsson. The Chief Epidemiologist has emphasised the importance of relaxing restrictions in stages to avoid a spike in case numbers that could place additional strain on the healthcare system.

Infections likely to increase

In his memorandum to the Health Minister, Þórólfur stated that the changes to quarantine regulations “will likely increase infections in schools and among families with preschool- and primary school-aged children.” Relaxing social restrictions would, on the other hand, be likely to lead to increased infections among older demographics. “It is important, however, that this increase does not lead to an increase in serious illness and hospitalisation,” Þórólfur added. If strain on the hospital increases, authorities “must be ready to apply countermeasures.”

Iceland’s current domestic restrictions include a 10-person gathering limit, mandated closure of bars and nightclubs, and mandatory mask use in shops and on public transit. They are currently valid until February 2. The Health Minister has stated he will present a plan for relaxing restrictions in stages this Friday.

Schools to Remain Open this Autumn, Says Icelandic Government

Borgarfjörður eystri

Icelandic schools will open for in-person teaching at the end of this month, according to Iceland’s Prime Minister and Health Minister. RÚV reports that the state council, which consists of cabinet ministers and the President of Iceland, will meet this week to review pandemic response. Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir says the council will evaluate the success of the restrictions implemented over the past two weeks in response to the current wave of COVID-19 infection, Iceland’s largest since the start of the pandemic.

Teachers receiving booster shots

Primary schools and preschools have largely remained open in Iceland throughout the pandemic, though their operations have at times been subject to restrictions. The Prime Minister says this will remain the case.  “We will continue to prioritise school operations. Whether we need to keep things in mind in regards to their organisation, that’s something that we are going to discuss with those working in the field, and a part of preparing for school operations to proceed as normally as possible is, of course, the revaccination of teachers that begins today,” Katrín stated. School workers in Iceland received the Janssen (Johnson & Johnson) vaccine but are now being offered a booster shot of Pfizer or Moderna, as are all residents of Iceland that received the single-dose J&J vaccine.

Health Minister Svandís Svavarsdóttir underlined that current domestic restrictions due to COVID-19 do not restrict school activities in any way. The Icelandic Medicines Agency has approved the use of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine for the 12-15 age group and Iceland health authorities are now reviewing whether to recommend the vaccination of this demographic before the school year begins.

Government reevaluating approach to pandemic

In recent days the cabinet has scheduled meetings with special interest groups, such as educators, artists, and athletes. One of the goals of the meetings is to evaluate the need for further economic measures in response to the pandemic. Minister of Finance Bjarni Benediktsson has stated that the pandemic’s economic impact in 2021 is nothing compared to the blow it dealt last year. Current economic measures will remain in effect until the end of this year.

While vaccines are not proving as effective in preventing infection and spread of the Delta variant as Icelandic authorities had hoped, they are reducing the rates of hospitalisation and serious illness due to COVID-19 in the country. This changes the position we are in, according to the Prime Minister, and requires a reassessment of government response to the pandemic.

Standardised Tests Plagued by Technical Difficulties

keyboard computer typing

Technical difficulties affected standardised Icelandic testing in several schools in the country today. While the ninth-grade examinations went well for some, others could not log in to the online system or lost connection during the examination. At least ten schools have decided to postpone the testing as a result. This is the second time technical difficulties plague the test: in 2018, the system crashed entirely and the tests also had to be postponed.

“It is inadmissible that students who take exams at this age cannot complete them without hurdles,” Arnór Guðmundsson, Director of the Directorate of Education, told Fréttablaðið. Arnór says the problem lies with the US-based examination software, the same one used for the 2018 tests, which also faced technical difficulties. He adds that the incident is particularly frustrating as tests had been conducted to ensure the system could handle many more students at once than were expected to take the test.

The purpose of standardised examinations is to provide parents, teachers, and students with information about each students’ academic status. Despite today’s technical difficulties, the Directorate of Education says it will continue to work to provide students with feedback through standardised assessment.

Have Icelandic schools remained open since August 2020?

school children

Icelandic schools for those 16 and under have remained open since August. Junior colleges (for students 16-20) and universities did hold classes online in the fall during Iceland’s third wave of infection but are holding in-person classes for the most part now.

Some restrictions are in place that limit class sizes or enforce mask use in schools for older children but for the most part, elementary and middle schools have been free of restrictions. Iceland’s government has prioritised keeping schools (particularly primary schools) open through the pandemic, often relaxing restrictions in schools before other parts of society.

Six Taken to Hospital Following Reykjavík School Attack

Borgarholtsskóli

No serious injuries resulted from an attack at Borgarholtsskóli junior college in Reykjavík earlier this afternoon, RÚV reports. Six people were, however, taken to hospital due to minor injuries. The school principal says the community is in shock following the incident.

“There was a fight in the toilets and someone got a bloody face or something. Then some guys showed up with a baseball bat, knife, and wrench and just started attacking the guy,” described Heiðar Már Hildarson, a student at the school. The three attackers are young men and do not belong to the school community, according to Borgarholtsskóli Principal Ársæll Guðmundsson.

The Icelandic Special Forces were sent to the school in response to the attack. Hallways were evacuated and students kept in classrooms while police and officials secured the premises. Afternoon classes were subsequently cancelled and students sent home.

Ársæll described the incident as not only an attack on Borgarholtsskóli, but an attack on the democratic tradition of attending school. It is gravely serious that an incident like this can occur as we take for granted that schools are a safe place for all, he explained. “This is simply an attack on our society as a whole.”

The school’s normal schedule will resume tomorrow, according to Ársæll, and the students and staff will have a chance to process the events together and be offered trauma counselling.

Iceland Review will continue to report on the incident as more information becomes available.

Sex Ed to Be Reviewed By Experts

Reykjavík school

The Icelandic government has appointed a task force of 13 experts to review the country’s sexual education curriculum. The group will turn in a timeline of suggested measures and their projected cost by the end of February and complete its review in full by May 2021. The measures are meant to improve sexual education and violence prevention education in primary and secondary schools.

As part of its work, the expert panel will carry out a survey on sex education in order to collect impressions from teachers, school administrators, and students. The panel will then decide whether changes need to be implemented to the sexual education curriculum, and also teacher training, the role of specialised staff such as school nurses and counsellors, in order to improve the quality of education. The recent parliamentary resolutions on prevention of sexual and gender-based violence and harassment among children and youth will be a source of reference for the panel’s work.

The task force is chaired by activist and lecturer Sólborg Guðbrandsdóttir, who has been working to raise awareness of online harassment and gender-based harassment since 2016, primarily through her Instagram account Fávitar (Idiots). Sólborg recently published a book of the same name, featuring real sexual health and relationship questions she has received from Icelandic youth and her answers to them. The book reached seventh place on Iceland’s bestseller list in November.

COVID-19 in Iceland: Updated Regulations Take Effect Today

barber shop hair salon

Slight changes to Iceland’s COVID-19 restrictions take effect today, November 18. The changes are minor and mostly affect school operations and children’s activities, though hair salons and massage parlours have been permitted to reopen. Authorities have emphasised the need for continued restrictions over the coming weeks in order to avoid a resurgence in new cases.

Following a summer with low COVID-19 infection rates, Iceland experienced a new wave of infection that started in mid-September. Active case numbers and the country’s incidence rate have been dropping steadily since mid-October, however.

Most Rules Have Been Extended

Most of the country’s regulations, implemented on October 31 or earlier, remain unchanged in the new regulations, which will be in effect for two weeks. A gathering ban on groups over 10 remains in effect, and bars, clubs, swimming pools, and gyms remain closed. Regulations for restaurants remain the same: they may operate but must close no later than 10.00pm.

As per the previous regulations, grocery stores and pharmacies may take in 50-100 customers at a time, where space allows for 2-metre distancing. Mask use remains mandatory in shops and on public transportation.

Changes to Gathering Limits in Schools

Most of the regulations that have been relaxed affect schools and children’s activities. Athletics and recreational activities for children of preschool and primary school age are permitted to resume from today, both indoors and outdoors. In order for such activities to take place, the mixing of different groups at this age is now permitted.

Groups of up to 50 are permitted for children in preschools and grades 1-4, whereas children in grades 5-10 may be in groups of up to 25. Mask use is no longer mandatory for children in grades 5-7 and neither is 2-metre distancing.

In junior colleges (where students are generally aged 16-19), groups of up to 25 are permitted, up from the limit of 10 yesterday. Some junior colleges have reported, however, that they will continue online teaching for the remainder of the term. Students and staff at junior colleges are required to use masks where two-metre distancing cannot be maintained.

Hair salons and massage parlours are also permitted to reopen as of today, and driving and flight lessons are permitted once more. Mask use is mandatory for all commercial activities requiring contact or close proximity. The updated regulations will remain in effect until December 1.