Harri Mikk: Schools and political epidemiology

Harri Mikk
Harri Mikk Source: Private collection

Our problem is that politicians have placed schools and children in the epicenter of combating the virus, even though neither are critical in terms of how it spreads. The education of Estonian children is being managed by political epidemiology as opposed to the goal of giving them the best possible education, Harri Mikk writes.

Closing schools, at least on the basic school level, has been the wrong decision since the coronavirus crisis started. Perhaps we did not have sufficient information in March and had to err on the side of caution.

However, by April we had enough information and studies from other countries to suggest that the virus is usually not dangerous for children and they are not its main carriers. Teachers are not at greater risk of infection than representatives of other professions, statistics from countries that did not close schools told us. Nevertheless, schools in Estonia remained closed.

Over the summer, various studies only confirmed that children are not a risk group for COVID-19 and that for them, the virus is no more dangerous than any other seasonal infectious disease. Looking at the picture in Estonia today, none of that seems to matter.

By now, our schools have become a political battleground where politicians can demonstrate doing more to combat the virus than others. Schools are at the mercy of the whims of rulers, which is a situation no one should find themselves in in a state based on the rule of law.

Various guidelines are completely random and issued by institutions that completely lack both capacity and jurisdiction. This leads to replacement activities such as the city of Tallinn's virus scenarios, decisions to send children home with no reason, arbitrary distance learning orders etc.

Some are innocent and only constitute a waste of public resources, such as thermal cameras in schools, while others are outright illegal, such as five-minute intermissions (see § 24 sub-s 5 of the Basic Schools and Upper Secondary Schools Act). Children are the ones suffering the consequences.

The entire political leadership has let our children down in this crisis. This concerns the government, the opposition, president, prime minister, justice chancellor and definitely the city of Tallinn as well as, it is to be feared, a number of other local governments.

Get a hold of yourselves! We need a fundamental change of attitude that would see schools continue their normal work until a capable organ that in this case is the Health Board orders schools closed or classes sent home on a case by case basis and based on the epidemiological situation. This would see schools or classes switched to e-learning or classes continuing online.

The Communicable Diseases Prevention and Control Act is still in effect in Estonia. It specifically regulates epidemiological threat assessment and temporary closing of children's institutions as a result.

The agency in charge of applying it is the Health Board. Temporarily closing childcare institutions on a case by case basis either following its own initiative or when prompted by school operators falls to the Health Board. And if the board can monitor a local outbreak that followed a private sauna party, it should be capable of monitoring the number of cases in schools.

What we have today is political discretion and not crisis management. Whereas it is based on the government's conviction that the crisis needs to be managed based on the people's expectations and not the epidemiological situation. Whereas this approach has been challenged neither by the opposition, the president nor the justice chancellor.

Minister of Education and Research Mailis Reps (Center) told ERR in an interview that restrictions in spring were laid down based on the people's expectations. Let us back up for a second – expectations? The Health Board wanted to proceed based on the epidemiological situation. The conflict culminated in the head of the agency leaving. How far will we take this expectations-based "crisis management"?

Heads of schools have been placed in an impossible situation based on the example of Tallinn. Almost half of Estonian schoolchildren go to school in the capital. The city is putting pressure on schools to switch to "distance learning." Principals who do not go along need to keep in mind that it could affect the school's budget, wages and development plans.

It is also very difficult to withstand pressure from frightened parents without political support. According to the law, heads of schools cannot just send kids home by classes or age groups for weeks on end. The effective result for these classes is the school closing, which should happen only based on the Communicable Diseases Prevention and Control Act and when ordered by a competent authority.

We are dealing with more than just an "organization of study" matter in the meaning of the Basic Schools and Upper Secondary Schools Act. It is a decision based specifically on the epidemiological situation for which purpose the Health Board has been created. The board needs to base its decisions on the epidemiological situation and not people's expectations.

There is another important aspect. Things such as "dispersed study" or "distance learning" do not exist in Estonian legislation. However, the Basic Schools and Upper Secondary Schools Act includes e-learning.

I sent the Ministry of Education and Research a request for information of whether criteria exist for euphemisms such as "distance learning." Their answer was that distance learning should be considered a form of full-time study today.

"To organize distance learning, the school needs to revise its daily schedule and situation, while keeping in mind legal principles (lessons, consecutive lessons, performance of the curriculum). Distance learning should not alter the principles of full-time study (for example what a lesson is) to a significant degree."

In other words, "distance learning" or "dispersed study" must still see lessons take place according to the timetable and with participation and guidance from teachers.

I expect there were only a few schools where most lessons took place based on the timetable and curriculum from March until June. In most cases, there was a single lesson during the average school day, while teaching mostly consisted of giving homework through the e-school system. That is not teaching or education either de jure or de facto. We cannot just give children the textbook and order them to learn how to read!

Based on what we know today, the coronavirus will be with us for years to come, maybe for good, whereas we might not see any simple solutions, including an effective vaccine. It is high time we start addressing the problem where it is most useful (protecting risk groups) while allowing society to functional normally.

General and indiscriminate restrictions could have been justifiable in spring but aren't today. Let us keep schools open until their partial or complete closure is based on an epidemiological necessity determined by a competent authority. It will yield better results in terms of containing the virus than recent political epidemiology.


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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