Minister of Education Mailis Reps describes Tallinn city government's order that schools put a part of students on distance learning as problematic and disproportionate. Instead of sending children home, schools could use libraries and hotel conference rooms to disperse students, the minister suggests.
Reps told ERR that the traffic light Tallinn has set up for its educational institutions is problematic.
"Tallinn based its steps on what we knew in spring which is when these forecasts and plans were first drawn up. And sure enough, in spring and early summer our best guess was that a statistical spike suggests that COVID-19 is widespread in society. We are much wiser today and our ability to isolate these outbreaks is so much better that we are asked to adopt an outbreak-based approach and only really consider distance learning to be justified if cases directly concern parents – as happened in Ida-Viru County – or reach the school," Reps said.
She said that because Tallinn Airport is testing a lot of passengers, the statistical indicator could spike, while random sample surveys prove that COVID-19 is not spreading incidentally.
"It is still spreading through outbreaks and we have the capacity to find and isolate these outbreaks fairly quickly today," the minister said.
That is why Reps finds that distance learning is justified in the capital only if teachers believe it can improve the study process on the high school level, not because of the coronavirus situation.
"These measures come too soon today," Reps said regarding the Tallinn orders.
The minister added that she has been in contact with the city government in the past 24 hours and been given explanations by Deputy Mayor Vadim Belobrovtsev that has led her to believe the situation in Tallinn's schools is moving toward a calmer solution than what was declared on Wednesday.
"Yes, we need preventive measures – schools should consider possible scenarios. However, the city government has assured us that schools will not be required to send students home wholesale. We should be getting new reassuring messages in the next hours," the education minister said. "Tallinn's initial message from Wednesday that has already been diligently complied with by many schools, while others have decided to wait and see, requires mutual concretization. If the final message will be that schools should consider their situation calmly and then see, we will support it, while sending masses of children home today would be disproportionate."
New guidelines for schools
Reps said that the ministry will be sending schools adjusted guidelines for coronavirus measures. The main change will see the return of this spring's communication with local governments, meaning weekly exchanges that should make sure information regarding local plans reaches the ministry quickly and directly as opposed to via the media.
"It is clear that in Tallinn, people will also be phoning the ministry directly to ask for interpretations and explanations, so we should definitely coordinate things," Reps said.
The other recommendation concerns the requirement of scattering children.
Reps said that children can be dispersed in other ways besides sending them home. For example, libraries of local cultural centers can be used. Hotels have also offered their help in Tallinn as their conference halls are empty in the conditions of the coronavirus and could be booked for a modest price.
"We ask you to keep an eye open beyond the territory of the school," Reps told schools and local governments. "Perhaps there is a better alternative to leaving kids home wholesale."
The cost of renting additional premises would be shouldered by local governments as school operators. The government has allocated them €30 million for just such additional expenses and not all of it has been spent yet, with the funds to remain available until the year's end.
"We will discuss with local governments how to cover such extraordinary expenses in the education and social systems in next year's budget," Reps promised.
The third change is involving school nurses in decision-making processes to take some of the pressure off class teachers and avoid overreaction, which is what many parents have reported during the first weeks of school.
"We have received complaints of overreaction following a child coming in from the outside with a running nose," Reps said.
Editor: Marcus Turovski