There is a government order currently in force, which does not restrict students studying at general education schools. It is unknown if the Health Board has made such a decision for schools in Tallinn and a high number of infections alone does not give schools the right to implement distance learning, Chancellor of Justice Ülle Madise wrote in a comment on Tallinn's decision to send schools to distance learning for a week after the school break.
Therefore, it is not clear, which competent institution's epidemiological decision was used to base the decision of implementing distance learning in Tallinn municipal schools for a week after the school break.
School directors and managers are not competent to assess the spread of the coronavirus and its effects on hospital workloads, the justice chancellor said. The Health Board is to make decisions over the epidemic spread of the coronavirus, basing their decisions on epidemiological, laboratory and clinical data, as is stated in the Communicable Diseases Prevention and Control Act (NETS). Therefore, only the Health Board or the government can temporarily close schools or restrict movement, but the study methods (like distance learning) will be decided by the school.
Just the fact that the number of coronavirus infections have increased does not give schools the right to implement distance learning. Infectious disease prevention must take into consideration that legislation only allows for restrictions that are necessary to limit the spread to be put into force. The same goes for the proportionality of legislatively implemented restrictions. You must assess each restrictions separately and all restrictions as a whole. Measures must have a causal and proportional link to lessening the burden on hospitals. Controlling the hospital workload is the main goal beside making vaccinations available for everyone, Madise wrote.
The situation has changed significantly when compared to last spring. By now, 57 percent of the population have gone through the vaccination process. This includes 66 percent of the adult population. Some 70-80 percent of the population has antibodies. Students above the age of 12 are also vaccinated. At the same time, we must remember that schoolchildren are generally not in COVID-19 risk groups, the risk of them developing a serious case and needing hospitalization is small, which is reflected by official hospitalization data in Estonia. Therefore, it needs to be clarified why Tallinn considered it justified to send classes 4-8 to distance learning while younger children, who cannot get vaccinated, can continue to go to contact classes.
Madise added that the justice chancellor's position is that distance learning is allowed in principle as a precautionary measure by the Basic Schools and Upper Secondary Schools Act, but only when the actual epidemiological situation justifies the implementation. The school can only use the factual situation of the specific school when implementing safety measures, this also includes vaccinations and the rate of recovered people among students and children.
Even if vaccinations are primarily effective against symptomatic cases of the coronavirus and serious cases of the virus, hospitalization and deaths, there is a considerable amount of scientific data, which shows that vaccinations can help prevent spread.
Therefore, the currently available data allows us to conclude that vaccinations reduce the risks of infection, spread and illness. If the school has a problem with teacher infections, they must consider using all necessary measures in their risk analysis to reduce infections. It is not allowed to compensate for the lack of teachers by cutting students off from contact classes, which is the primary method of studies as according to law, the justice chancellor said.
When implementing distance learning, the same study quality as contact classes must be ensured. In the conditions of the coronavirus, distance learning has been problematic so far. Among other things, the number of number of students with learning difficulties has doubled, studying has not been as effective as contact classes, especially among older classes. Therefore, it cannot be ruled out that long-term distance learning limits the students' fundamental right to quality education. Limiting fundamental rights must be necessary and proportional.
This does not mean that it is not possible to implement distance learning in order to limit the spread of the coronavirus to control the workload of hospitals. As of legislation, the competent authority can decide on movement restrictions in all schools or a specific school. Therefore, if the epidemiological situation in some schools has reached a level where the Health Board deems it justified to impose a movement restrictions, it is possible to do so on a school-by-school basis. The school can decide on the use of safety measures based on the Health Board decision, such as directing some or all of their students to distance learning. The school is responsible for the legality of the decision.
Editor: Kristjan Kallaste