A school just outside Tallinn has closed after potential coronavirus contacts were established among the staff and pupil body. A later report revealed that it, along with another school, had tried in vain at the weekend to contact the Health Board (Terviseamet) as per its own requirements for high risk coronavirus cases, but they weren't working on a Sunday.
The school, the Järveküla school in Rae rural municipality, to the southeast of Tallinn, has closed for in-class learning, with pupils now having classes remotely from home.
School director Mare Räis told ERR News Monday afternoon that while no positive coronavirus tests had been returned in relation to staff (Räis later told ETV that in fact two teachers had contracted the virus - see below - ed.), close contacts with COVID-19 individuals were being established and the school would be on full distance learning to the end of the month.
Schools were closed nationwide from mid-March to the end of the academic year in late May in response to the original wave of the coronavirus pandemic. While the Health Board has identified COVID-19 outbreaks in several schools, principally in the northern and eastern regions, schools themselves have been operating using both in-class and remote learning, along with taking other precautions such as social distancing measures, staggering meal breaks etc.
Justice chancellor Ülle Madise recently said that individual schools may not impose their own restrictions on top of those set by the education ministry and local governments, though closing a school when a case found among the staff or pupil body would be standard.
AK: Health Board emergency coronavirus staff don't work Sundays
A report on Monday evening's edition of ETV news show "Aktuaalne kaamera" (AK) shed more light on the situation at the Järveküla school, and another school in Kiili, near Tallinn, painting a picture of confusion between different authorities as well as political differences of opinion on how strict COVID-19 regulations, in respect of schools, should be.
While school leaders acted in accordance with the regulations and contacted the Health Board (Terviseamet) Sunday, notifying them of the exposure to coronavirus on the part of staff and pupils, the board wasn't answering its phones.
"First I contacted the school administrator, then I tried to get the health board. As that didn't work, I next contacted our family doctor in Kiili, Dr. Meelika Lutter," Ruth Pekkenen, director of Kiili upper secondary school told AK.
Mare Räis told AK she too called the telephone of the Health Board's northern regional department on Sunday and got no reply, and was forwarded to the general COVID-19 helpline on 1247 but said the help received was inadequate.
A Ministry of Education letter to schools date November 5 said that schools cannot, as noted, unilaterally act in sending students to remote learning, but must clear it with the Health Board.
However, with no response on the Sunday from the board, the schools say they had no option but to go ahead and close for Monday – in the case of the Järveküla school the decision had to be made on the Monday morning in fact.
"The first call from a teacher who had fallen ill reached me 15 minutes before 9 o'clock in the morning," Räis said, in contrast to what she'd told ERR News earlier in the day.
"This meant that we immediately started mapping teachers and those students who had been in close contact with him. When we combed through the circle of close contacts, it transpired that we still had another teacher who had succumbed to the coronavirus," she went on.
Initially, the school sent some classes for distance learning, but from Monday evening, in conjunction with the Health Board, the whole school was sent on distance learning.
In the case of Kiili Upper Secondary school, the remote learning requirement was employed only for some classes.
Health Board chief: I apologize
Director General of the Health Board Üllar Lanno issued an apology to both schools, pinning the blame on work organization problems, which he says are now being solved.
"Our heartiest apologies to those schools that weren't able to catch us on the weekend. On the one hand, the issue was we don't have personnel who would normally answer these calls in the building at weekends. On the other, we altered our activities on Friday, in agreement with the emergency center we forwarded coronavirus calls to 1247. We thought that the problem would be on the way to solving itself, but as you can see, the situation turned out to be different," Lanno went on.
Ministry of Education: No comment to media on schools not being able to follow its own regulations
Lanno added that 1247 operators have emergency Health Board phone contacts which they can use in the event of high infection risk cases like the weekend's.
AK attempted several times to get a comment from the Ministry of Education - the authority which had put the rules in place in the first place - but were unable to get a response.
Education minister Mailis Reps (Center) recently said she wants to make a switch to remote learning possible only in the most dire of cases, though she has met with opposition from others within her party, including Tallinn mayor Mihhail Kõlvart.
Reps is however broadly backed by justice chancellor Ülle Madise, who recently said that a school in Tallinn was wrong to impose a mask-wearing rule on students, as well as sending them home by its own decision.
The Järveküla and Kiili schools lie outside Tallinn city limits, though they are in Harju County, which has been consistently posting the largest number of new, daily coronavirus cases for some days now.
Editor: Andrew Whyte