Finnish students returned to school this week with class sizes adjusted and school arrival and departure times staggered.

"It was really nice to see all my classmates, and the teachers, and the school as well," says 15-year-old Lilja, one of around 900,000 Finnish students who has returned to their classroom. 

"At first I was wearing a face-mask, but when I saw that no one else was wearing one I took it off."

Just like Irish students, Lilja and her classmates have been out of school for the past two months. On a WhatsApp video call Lilja, Claudia, and Emma - all in the Finnish equivalent of their Junior Certificate year at Pakilan Yläaste secondary school in Helsinki - relate, in excellent English, the details of their new school routine.

After two days back at school the girls are relaxed and happy. They are all together as they speak to me. In Finland groups smaller than ten are allowed.

School arrival and departure times have been staggered, with 15-minute gaps between the grades. Lilja and her classmates began school at 9am.

Some classes have been moved in to bigger spaces - in the case of Lilja's class of 25 students, it is the school gym. Other classes have been split between two regular classrooms. There are two metres between every desk, the girls say.

Every student is required to wash their hands upon arrival. In the classrooms with no sinks they use hand sanitiser instead. They are not allowed to touch any doors, or computers.

Despite the fact that they are in secondary school the students had just one teacher with them for the duration of the entire school day. That one teacher distributed work for different subjects.

The students were encouraged to text individual subject teachers if they had a difficulty or a question about their work. But they didn’t meet those other teachers.

The Finnish return to school took place despite concern and warnings from teacher unions there that it may not be totally safe for staff or children.

The country’s top epidemiologist however, Mika Salminen, defended the decision. Referring to recent epidemiological evidence, "the risk of a child infecting an adult is not realistic" he said, "opening schools is risk-free".

This was the same day that Taoiseach Leo Varadkar asserted here that opening schools was "among the safest things that we can do".

He was commenting on this week's HIQA assessment of a number of studies, which indicated that children were not substantially contributing to the spread of the virus.

But those studies were limited, as HIQA was at pains to point out. Very little research has been done as yet in this area.

In Finland, opinion polls in the days before the schools reopened suggested an even split on the issue. The same kind of "for and against" debate that has begun here was taking place, with people worried about how to manage school transport, and overcrowding in schools.

Lilja’s father Rane is open. "I am curious about how things will go," he tells RTÉ News, "but at the moment I think it should be safe, and it is easier, and better for them."

Finland's schools closed at the same time as Ireland's did, for all children under ten. Younger children whose parents were essential workers continued attending.

School

Now all children are obliged to return to school unless they can produce a doctor's certificate authorising them to continue distance learning. It would appear that most children have returned. 

For younger children the school day was similar to that of Lilja and her classmates.

Ten-year-old Sanna began school at Pohjois Haaga primary school in Helsinki at 11am, instead of her normal starting time of 8.15am.

Asked via her father, Timo, what was the best thing about going back, "just being in school, and seeing my friends" is her response.

Sanna's class too has been moved to a much bigger room to allow for social distancing. In her primary school the classes take their breaks at different times, to prevent mixing. 

In two weeks' time, Finnish schools will close again for the summer. The government acknowledges that the picture may be very different in autumn. It is looking at a blend of at home online learning and limited school attendance. It acknowledges that this approach may be necessary.

The description Sanna gives of her school day and her break time with her friends is nothing like the picture that emerged from France this week. In bleak images and TV reports that were shared on social media children were pictured isolated in school yards, each child sitting alone within a chalked out box on the ground. Teachers and other staff were masked.

The French images were far from reassuring. They were shocking and miserable.

In Sanna’s primary school none of the children or teachers wore masks.

Sanna says that before break-time she and her classmates discussed with their teacher the kind of games that they might be able to play. The children plumped for "statues", where all must freeze their movements when the child who is "on" gives the order. She says they also figured out a way of playing "tag" without touching each other. 

It's clear from the accounts all these children give that strict social distancing is not being expected of them, between themselves.

It must be strange. It's far from ideal. But Sanna, Lilja, Claudia, and Emma are very glad indeed that school is back. But is it really "risk free"? Ireland will be watching countries such as Finland very carefully, to see how all of this works out.