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Coronavirus: New school rules a shambles (Update 2)

feature nick at present phaneromeni school educates 120 gymasium and primary school pupils

An open row erupted on Thursday between the ministries of education and health over contact tracing of positive coronavirus cases in schools, embarrassing the government and perplexing public opinion.

The saga started when the health ministry, citing the need to contain community spread because of clusters in the schools, announced stricter protocols that provide for closure of classes or even of whole schools.

It said these changes were decided in consultation with the education ministry and the team of scientists advising the government on coronavirus.

But the education ministry countered that the new rules were unenforceable as they would be too disruptive and would lead to the closure of most schools. The old protocol remains in force pending consultations with the health ministry and the team of advisors, it added.

Under the changes, an entire class would be considered a close contact if a student in that unit tests positive. Schools will close for in-person teaching for a week if positive cases are identified in three or more classes within a week.  And students will be considered close contacts if they were on the same bus as an individual who tests positive.

Under the new protocols, both students and school officials will count towards the criteria.

On in-person schooling resuming following positive cases, the health ministry announcement said that “one week after the closure of the school (the sixth day after the closure), the entire school will take rapid tests… minus the classes which are considered close contacts and will remain in self-isolation for required period.

“Whichever classes do not have a new case may return the next day. In the classes where a new case is identified, only the students/educators of the class which are not a close contact and have a negative result can return.”

Additionally, the students in a class which is operating under distance-learning protocols will not be eligible to participate in afternoon and out of school activities.

The policy change appeared to take teachers and parents by surprise.

Themis Polyviou, president of secondary school teachers’ union Oelmek, said they had just heard about the changes but added that many reflected suggestions the union had made to Constantinos Tsioutis, who heads the team of experts advising the government on the pandemic.

Primary school teachers union president Myria Vassiliou welcomed the new rules which she said were in line with Poed’s proposals.

Charalambos Dionysiou of the parents’ association expressed concern that this would lead schools to close, thereby disrupting an already difficult school year, adding that the protocols should remain unchanged.

The harshest words came later on Thursday from the education ministry. It said that it was in consultation with the health ministry and the team of experts regarding a possible change to the health protocol.

“However, the proposal of the experts that was made public today regarding changes in the protocol and in dealing with Covid cases unfortunately is unenforceable in practice.”

And it added: “It cannot be implemented without causing disruption at the schools and leading to uncontrolled mass suspension of in-person teaching, and without in fact there being any prior planning.”

Suspending in-person teaching at schools with just three cases in one week would affect a large number of schools, and within 15 to 20 days nearly all or perhaps all, would end up with distance learning.

Moreover, schools that re-open with a physical presence may have to close again a few days later.

Indicatively, the education ministry noted that were the rules applied in the first week of April, 62 primary and secondary schools, and an additional 300 classes in other schools, would have had to suspend in-person teaching.

“If there is an equivalent trend over a few weeks, then most schools will suspend the physical presence of children,” it said.

If the epidemiologists thought that the coronavirus outbreak warranted suspending the operation of schools, they should have submitted a proposal to this effect, as the specific proposal that was submitted leads to an equivalent result, without making it possible to plan or manage the schools and distance learning, it said.

This would lead to unsurmountable problems as regards the completion of the academic year in higher secondary schools (lyceums) and create additional problems for lower secondary schools (gymnasiums) which had been restricted to on online learning for three months.

“Schools continue for the time being to implement the existing health protocol and relevant instructions,” it concluded.

 

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