Education ministry hopes to avoid distance learning in fall

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Empty classroom. (photo is illustrative)
Empty classroom. (photo is illustrative) Source: Juhan Hepner/ERR

The Ministry of Education and Research is currently expecting all students, young and old, to return to their education establishments in fall with specific guidelines currently being discussed and prepared with the Health Board (Terviseamet) in hopes to inform schools before September.

In three weeks, a new academic year will begin, but there is yet no certainty how long studying can be done in classrooms before another wave of the coronavirus forces students back home.

Today is the first official day of work at general education schools and Henrik Salum, director of Gustav Adolf High School (GAG) told ERR that a meeting to discuss possible methods of distance learning has been set but the school is preparing to take on the school year as usual.

Salum said: "I hope regular learning is activated and there will be no obstacles. But the situation can change quickly. The expected situation is currently one where we are preparing for distance learning but hoping that we will not need it."

He says the Tallinn Education Department sent preliminary info last week which the board promised to update going forward, but whether or not distance learning is expected in case of a second wave, was not specified.

Salum added: "The school manager is still dealing with the questions: the Education Department is doing all it can to prevent what can be prevented. We are still waiting on concrete directives."

He added that the information currently available to the school is more than enough. "But health comes first, that is what we are basing everything on. In case the virus starts spreading again, we have to get the most out of distance learning," Salum said.

For Tallinn, the school's manager, it is important to map out teachers belonging to risk groups of COVID-19. This helps to prepare for risks and how to alleviate them.

Salum noted that distance learning would be most difficult for children going into first grade - if the virus were to force children to study at home for the first six months, it would affect them greatly.

The Ministry of Education and Research's general plan and direction is to avoid a similar situation as the one in spring when students had to spend an extended amount of time learning from home.

Mart Laidmets, Chancellor of the Ministry of Education and Research, said the plan, as of now, is to call all students from elementary school up to universities to school for September 1.

Laidmets emphasized that sufficient hygiene still has to be ensured. "The current situation has not directed us to direct schools to distance learning. We will certainly not propagate some large-scale gatherings or dogpiles. Education has to be conducted in a way, where there is minimal physical contact."

At the same time, developments regarding COVID-19 can happen rapidly. Laidmets says that even if something were to happen, for example - a student in some class is diagnosed with COVID-19, work will be done to identify where the virus originates from and who the child was in contact with. In that case the class is first quarantined, not the entire school.

Laidmets noted: "We will send out more specific guidelines to schools [before September], we have those completed in principle. We are still going over them with the Health Board, but there is no need to send them out before next week. The most specific guidelines will be sent out a week or so before school, but generally, all children across Estonia will head to kindergarten and school."

Education Department's plan to be ready by August 25

Andres Pajula, head of Tallinn Education Department told ERR that similar to the ministry, he also hopes children can return to schools on September 1.

He did note that the education ministry is preparing for many scenarios. "We are ready for schools to work at full capacity. We are ready, depending on the virus' costs, to disperse school work. And we are ready to close entirely. We are ready for all three scenarios," Pajula said.

He added no specific guidelines have yet been sent out to schools.

Pajula said: "At the Education Department, we have worked with many of the city's instances and tried to figure out to better organize work. We are meeting with schools and kindergartens seperately and will then give directives on how to act. What's clear is that in the conditions of a new wave, schools will be open for as long as possible. Certainly it is an idea worth pondering over. Distance learning is good, but to a certain extent."

Pajula added he agrees with the notion to close and quarantine specific classes and groups in case any cases of COVID-19 are diagnosed.

He said that an action plan will be in place by August 25. A meeting with education establishments' leaders is also planned for that day. Schools can prepare for distance learning in September, if necessary.

Pajula said: "The action plan will be ready before September, August 25.

"If the situation does not change on the virus front, we still wish to open schools in September. September is also the time when schools can prepare for distance learning if necessary. The largest problem will be primary education classes and parents. What's clear is that making conclusions there is most important, because the workload also falls on the parents and that can be a huge problem."


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Editor: Kristjan Kallaste

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