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The lecture hall where students of the Global Health program were studying has sat empty for three weeks. Photo: Karolinska Institute

Graduate students in Sweden worry about returning to campus as COVID-19 cases surge

Global Health program at the Karolinska Institute tells students classes will continue in person.

By Chiara Milford , in City Education Health , on November 26, 2020 Tags: , , , ,

Students in a prominent global-health program in Stockholm are questioning their university’s decision to bring them back to the classroom as COVID-19 cases climb higher than ever in Sweden.

The 35 masters students in the program at the Karolinska Institute were told Wednesday that they would be returning to campus as of next Monday after three weeks of online learning.

Course leaders made the decision despite students sending the results of a survey to the university indicating the majority of them didn’t feel safe going back. Of those who replied, 62 per cent said they were concerned about going back to in person lectures.

“I wouldn’t feel comfortable going back to class with cases this high,” said Anna Sarafis, an international student who moved to Stockholm from Tsawwassen, B.C.

Numbers of new cases in Sweden. As of Nov. 25, 6,555 people have been confirmed as having died from coronavirus in Sweden. Data from European CDC via Our World In Data

New laws banning public events with over eight people came into place in Stockholm on Nov. 24. These laws don’t apply to schools and universities.

The Swedish government has left it to individual universities to decide how to deliver courses during the pandemic.

The Karolinska Institute, one of the most prestigious medical-research institutions in the world, continued to hold face-to-face lectures for certain courses until early November.

Attendance remained mandatory with only some classes making online recordings available for those who needed to stay at home.

“One girl came in when she was delirious,” said Sarafis.

One student in the cohort contracted COVID-19.

“Teaching in person goes against all the recommendations”

Managers at the institute insists they’ve been following the advice of the public-health authority.

Helle Alvesson, head of education for the department of Global Public Health at the Karolinska Institute, said that in person teaching was a vital part of the program.

“When they went online in March, students complained. They said they felt like ‘Zoom beings’,” she said.

But an associate professor of epidemiology at Karolinska, Carina King, disagreed.

“Teaching in person goes against all the recommendations,” she said.

From the start of term, classes were moved to larger lecture halls, but they were poorly ventilated with no open windows.

“In a situation with 40 grown adults in a room for three hours without an open window, sitting one metre apart from each other is going to do f*** all,” said King.

Globally, Sweden has been seen as an outlier in dealing with the coronavirus. The Scandinavian country hasn’t ordered any lockdowns and mask wearing is still not recommended, despite it being a requirement in most other European nations.

Anna Sarafis portrait
Anna Sarafis is a student from Tsawwassen, B.C., who moved to Sweden to study this year. Photo: Courtesy of Anna Sarafis

Sarafis, who studied kinesiology at the University of British Columbia before starting the Karolinska masters program, finds the situation quite ironic.

“There must be a real cognitive dissonance for people,” she said, as they discuss infectious diseases while sitting face-to-face during a global pandemic.