AK: Schools struggling with heavy coronavirus testing workloads

A classroom.
A classroom. Source: Priit Mürk/ERR

Before the school year, schools received instructions from the Ministry of Education and Research on how to act if an infected individual is identified at school. Whether it remains viable to keep schools open during a third coronavirus wave according to these instructions, ETV's current weekly news show 'AK. Nadal' went to investigate.

In early August, the Ministry of Education sent schools instructions on how to continue with in-school learning in the case of a coronavirus positive result among pupils or staff. But this was only theoretical at that stage. The practical aspects started in September.

Principal of Karksi-Nuia high-school Jaak Israel said that while instructions from the Ministry of Education were comprehensible, it is a matter of how they work in real school life.

"Rapid tests had to be carried out at school, and two days later, PCR tests that the school nurse performed. In this regard, the instructions state that it puts a very heavy burden on schools," Israel said.

Israel said he does not consider the current testing requirement to be reasonable, however. He said that one test would be sufficient for the children.

Their school experience shows that no new infections were found in the second testing phase. Israel suggests that, likely because of testing, many schools have decided to go to distance learning, although this should be the last resort, according to the Ministry of Education.

This week, for example, Tarvastu High School in Viljandi County went on distance learning. Irma Väre, the mayor of Viljandi, said the school wanted to go distance learning, as 11 of the 30 teachers were either ill or in isolation at home.

"The teaching actually took place in such a way that the social pedagogue and speech therapists alternated between several classes, giving so-called study material, but in reality it could not be called in-contact teaching. The students did not learn anything," Väre said.

The municipality considered finding substitute teachers from other schools but did not consider that reasonable, because then classes would not have been given in those other schools.

There were also many absences among the students.

"More than half of the pupils are at home for various reasons, including the fact that the parent does not dare to send the child to a school where there is a high chance of getting a coronavirus infection," Väre said.

She said that the orders from the capital were not very clear, but the Viljandi rural municipality government did not allow itself to be discouraged. She added that every municipality, school and teacher is different and it may not be possible to regulate the operation of all schools in one decision.

"I would stress that the facts, a'peasant' mindset, logical thinking and - very important - involvement and cooperation with the community - then, in fact, this decision will be the best," Väre said.

Rain Sannik, the crisis manager of the Ministry of Education, admits that the school year has started briskly and the instructions sent to schools have had to be supplemented several times to make the recommendations as practical as possible.

"There have been the most questions and problems with this testing side and also with the equipment. At the beginning of the school year and probably even today, not all schools and school administrators have enough tests to use," Sannik said.

While the state provided quick tests to test unvaccinated teachers, the students had to buy them for the state money from the school operator himself, which is the local government. According to a study by the Ministry of Education, 65 percent of schools had them, but one in ten schools had not yet begun to purchase them.

Although school leaders believe that the current testing procedure is overstretched, Sannik said that this is probably the best measure to ensure that schools are kept open at the moment. The Health Board (Terviseamet) also monitors the effectiveness of mass testing of close contact children at school.

"We've looked at this data, after the first two weeks, we made a conclusion. From there, we could see that the number of positive tests wasn't high, it was rather low, so now we are contemplating between adding the second PCR test or replace it with a rapid antigen test," Head of the Infectious Diseases Department of the Health Board Hanna Sepp said. "But definitely, when the first month is over, we'll also look at how sensible such testing is."

The Ministry of Education does not have an exact overview of how many schools or classes have been sent for distance learning. To the Ministry's knowledge, individual classes or school levels have been sent on distance learning, but not the whole school.

"The regulation says that distance learning or school closure takes place by the school administrator in cooperation with the Health Board, these issues are discussed with the Health Board, they certainly do not come easily," Sepp confirms.

Sepp said that there are local governments and school leaders who make decisions on their own initiative, although they are usually consulted and recommendations are heard. If this is not done, there will be no punishment.

As of this week, there are 27 outbreaks in the northern region, nine in South Estonia, three in East Estonia and six in West Estonia.

"We have the most school outbreaks in the northern region, where we understandably have the most schools or the largest number of them. But if we look at the spread of the infection, the situation in the southern region and the proportion of schools is the most critical or difficult," Sepp said.

As in the spring, the disease is spreading more rapidly among teachers, although there are more infected children.


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Editor: Roberta Vaino

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