Partial distance learning may return in autumn

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

ETV's weekly current news show "Aktuaalne kaamera. Nädal." studied how schools should prepare for the summer break and whether it will be possible to restore normal life in the autumn. It is certain that teenagers will not be vaccinated by autumn, which means some students will have to return to distance learning if there is an outbreak.

Last summer the restrictions were relaxed and it was hoped a second wave would not arrive. Even though there is vaccination this year, scientists are prepared for an increase in the infection rate in autumn.

"I think two aspects are about to arise: one is the low intensity of vaccination and the other aspect is people's mobility. When the two meet, we can see there is more virus again," University of Tartu Professor Tanel Tenson said.

Schools are the places where people are moving around most in autumn and vaccination intensity is low as young people have not yet been vaccinated. This why Kivilinna school in Tartu, which was hit hard by the pandemic, is not looking forward to the new school year.

"We all want to hope that regular school life will come back. When we have had meetings with schools' principals, we have been warned that we have to be ready for another wave in autumn and taking the terms of distance learning into account," the principal of Kivilinna school Karin Lukk said.

Head of the Epidemic Control Department of the Health Board Irina Dontšenko, said: "We should prepare for autumn in the summer, to prepare for the conditions to be as safe as possible. We have to look at a very important aspect - ventilation efficiency. A lot depends on how well is the ventilation working."

According to the Ministry of Education, the Kivilinna school, built in the 1980s, does not have good ventilation and there are at least 250 schools in a similar position. The government allocated €30 million to local governments with an additional budget to improve ventilation, but these works will not be completed by autumn.

"Ventilation maintenance requires a project, large-scale work. But what can be done quickly? CO2 sensors can be taken into use quickly, they are already in use in several schools today," Minister of Education and Research Liina Kersna (Reform) said.

Tartu Kivilinna School received two CO2 meters from the city. They show that in a 70-minute lesson, the class gets very stuffy.

"If the class is full of students, it will still rise very quickly, in 20 minutes. If the windows and doors are opened, this time can be extended. But it is difficult in a schoolhouse without forced ventilation. We should hope that the Estonian people want to be vaccinated to ensure that we can go to school in autumn," Lukk said. 

Thus, in particular, schools still have hope that society will achieve herd immunity as a result of mass vaccination. At the same time, it is not worth believing that the coronavirus will not reach schools at all. And there is probably no escaping distance learning in the autumn.

"If there are outbreaks in the class - and they will definitely happen in the future - then the vaccinated teacher no longer has to go on distance teaching. We have 15,000 children from the age of seven to 19, who have suffered from the disease, so there are quite a lot of children who don't have to self-isolate," Kersna said.

This means that teachers must also be able to give classes in the next school year, half of which are in the classroom and the other half at home.

"Nor is this coronavirus really going away. I'd say the coronavirus stays with us the way we have seasonal flu," Tanel Tenson said.

"Given how severe the consequences of the virus can be, I personally don't want to think that it will become a common disease associated with the flu. Rather, I would like to achieve a situation where it disappears altogether or if, there are individual cases," principal Karin Lukk said.

It is hoped that the European Medicines Agency has confirmed the safety of the Pfizer vaccine for children aged between 12 and 15, and that studies are also being conducted for younger people. Teenagers are likely to receive an injection from school in the fall.

"In particular, we will focus on vaccination when children are already in school, and this is probably the most effective way to do it in a school environment," Kersna said.

Kersna also confirmed that in the case of larger school campuses, closures in the new school year will be made regionally, not across the country. And the mask requirement will remain in place.

"At a time when the infection rate is high or very high, either in the community or in the country in general, a mask is definitely necessary at school. In fact, it is said that those who have been vaccinated should also wear a mask, but we do not have social agreements on how we treat those who have been vaccinated, whether they should wear a mask or not. There are different approaches here," Kersna said.

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Editor: Roberta Vaino

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