Mayor: No sense in nursing illusion of kids returning to school this spring

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Tallinn Mayor Mihhail Kõlvart (Center). Source: Priit Mürk/ERR

Mayor of Tallinn Mihhail Kõlvart told ERR that he is not very hopeful in terms of children being able to return to school this spring. The mayor believes he should not be vaccinated in a situation where many essential workers have not been given access to immunization yet.

Have you been vaccinated?

Not yet, no.

Why?

I am waiting to be put on the waiting list and will be notified by my family physician.

You just ended a week in isolation. Do you believe it is right that the executive manager of the largest city has not been inoculated yet? You are in charge of the city with the most coronavirus patients and where the virus is widespread.

Only mayors and city council chairmen have been offered the chance to get vaccinated. It is not fair for me to make use of it in a situation where we are asking and even demanding the state vaccinate essential workers.

We are not talking just about medical staff, we have bus drivers and municipal police officers who have not been vaccinated. We do not even have a plan for immunizing them. The mayor does not seem like the number one priority.

I'm not talking just about the mayor. Tallinn's deputy mayor in charge of education (Vadim Belobrovtsev – ed.) is suffering from a severe case of Covid.

He is doing much better now, thank God. He is also not the only deputy mayor who has taken ill (Andrei Novikov – ed.). The city government is functioning normally and people are working from the home office. Naturally, vaccination should cover the entire cabinet.

Do you admit that you being administered the vaccine would have a wide-ranging positive effect in terms of managing fears of vaccination among Russian-speaking people?

This has been suggested to me in every possible way and people have even said the future of immunization in Lasnamäe depends on it. However, allow me to give an example. There was a vaccination campaign in Lasnamäe a few weeks ago. I tried to sign up but was too late because every single dose was booked by noon.

So, if anyone believes that the problem is reluctance to get vaccinated, I can tell you that this problem has not existed for some time. We cannot ask people why they are not getting vaccinated in a situation where vaccines are not available.

Xenophobia tends to rear its ugly head in crisis situations. This idea that many Russians are not complying with measures is as widespread in Estonia as similar attitudes are in Finland regarding Estonians. A dangerous subject matter. Where did [Prime Minister] Kaja Kallas err when she asked you to address the Russian-speaking community? Shouldn't the PM address the entire nation?

Local and central government heads cannot address Russian-speakers and Estonians separately. The PM is seemingly suggesting that someone else should appeal to the Russian-speakers. For some reason, it is believed that the key to solving the problem lies with changing Russians' behavior.

The Government Office commissioned a study the results of which suggest there is little difference in the conduct of Estonians and Russians. But there is a socioeconomic difference. For example, 40 percent of Estonians can afford to work from home, while just 17 percent of Russians can.

People are living in large apartment buildings in Lasnamäe not because they do not want a private residence in Pirita but because they have no other option. Viruses spread much more quickly in apartment buildings.

It is clear we are addressing immediate coronavirus concerns today. At the same time, you have criticized the government for lack of a longer-term plan. Where is Tallinn's plan? For example, it is quite likely that most adults will be vaccinated by September. But young people and small children are not being vaccinated. Therefore, the virus will continue doing the rounds in schools come fall. Is there a specific plan in place for improving ventilation in schoolhouses?

We started mapping the situation in schools last year. Relevant investments have been planned for this year. An additional analysis needs to be completed by summer. However, we cannot afford to solve the problem everywhere at once. We need to move forward gradually.

As an alternative, we are looking into use of modern technologies we are actively being offered. We installed thermal cameras in schools last fall, while we are now looking into rapid solutions for improving ventilation.

But it is an illusion that the problem can be solved for good. Children sit close together in school. Therefore, we need to change the way schools operate. It is one possible solution.

Tallinn has so-called elite schools with oversized classes. Can the city not lay down a rule of limiting classes to 24 students? We have empty classrooms in the suburbs, while city center schools are jam-packed.

It is part of a wider discussion on whether the education resource needs to be available only to children living in the city center or beyond it. The law today allows schools to admit more students. But whether we should impose limitations here is a question I cannot answer today.

When could the schools' ventilation problem be solved? Will it take five years or closer to ten?

The situation is not that complicated when it comes to schools. Many have already been renovated. Things are more serious concerning kindergartens of which just 27 have been fixed up. Some kindergartens are really quite old now.

Do you believe basic and high school students will return to schools this academic year?

We should not kid ourselves. Unfortunately, we need to consider it a possibility that it will not happen this spring. Something I have suggested in the past.

Does that also concern elementary school students?

I believe that elementary school students and children with special educational needs should be able to physically attend school as long as possible. The latter are still attending school today and have not been switched to remote learning. However, looking at the spread of the virus, people should be prepared for the worst.

It makes no sense to get people's hopes up every two weeks. It is easier to know the longer perspective, unpleasant as it may be.

Your decision to offer compensation for the first sick day took many by surprise. How will the city pay for it?

We have a reserve for coronavirus-related expenses. While we realize today that this need is much greater, meaning that a part of the money will have to come from the supplementary budget.

Are you referring the supplementary state budget or Tallinn's own budget?

I am talking about the city's supplementary budget here as the aid package goes well beyond compensating the first sick day. We need additional resources to fund other measures. Exempting people from having to pay for kindergarten places is the greatest expense at €1.5 million a month. Our calculations suggest that sick leave compensation will cost us around €750,000. We also need to procure personal protective gear, organize social campaigns and support enterprise. For example, as concerns rental fee exemptions.

The government has allocated €46 million for local government Covid expenses. How much of it will be coming Tallinn's way?

We do not know that yet. Experience from last year and before suggests that while a third of Estonians lives in Tallinn, we have never been allocated a third of the money.

Still, will you be covering the first sick day using money from the state budget?

We do not know how much we will receive. Secondly, as I said, Tallinn's share has not been proportional to its population in the past. Therefore, we need to proceed based on the city's fiscal possibilities above all.

Were Center Party members on Toompea Hill aware of your decision [to compensate the first sick day]?

We discussed it with Minister of Health and Labor Tanel Kiik. Our first preference would have been a countrywide measure. When it turned out that this was not possible, Tallinn reacted. It makes sense for the state to support local governments that can then make their own decisions.

Compensating people for the first sick day is sensible in the current critical situation. However, your opponents say that it is an election trick and using government funds to buy political support. (Local government council elections will be held in fall – ed.).

I'm sure that someone can reason or feel this way. But we do not have the time to think about that today. There is nothing we can do if someone wants to make this matter out to be political.

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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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