The Communicable Diseases Prevention and Control Act (NETS) provides that decisions to move schools to remote learning can be made by the Health Board or government, while the heads of Tallinn took matters into their own hands and will be forcing grades 4-8 to study remotely from the next week without legal grounds.
Head of the Tallinn Education Department Andres Pajula said on Thursday that the decision to move all Tallinn schools to remote study was made with heads of schools.
Pajula told ERR that heads of schools and the city felt that steps needed to be taken to stop school outbreaks from spreading.
Chancellor of Justice Ülle Madise has suggested that NETS does not give heads of the city or municipal schools the right to order remote learning as any such decision can only be made by the government or the Health Board based in each separate case on vaccination and infection rates.
"Legal basis is provided by the Basic Schools and Upper Secondary Schools Act (PGS). Organization of study and relevant grounds are up for schools to decide, such as in the form of distance learning. What is more, schools are obligated to ensure protection of students' health. Those are the grounds for switching to remote learning," Pajula explained.
However, the decision was not up to each individual school and was made for all by the city government.
Pajula said that while leaving the decision up to each individual school was discussed, because fourth-graders have not been vaccinated and the infection rate has been highest in the age group, it was decided together with heads of schools to put all schools on remote learning.
Vaccination is available to children 12 and over or since the sixth grade, while remote learning was ordered for up to eighth grade.
Pajula admitted that the city did not ask the Health Board for permission.
"There have been schools where the disease is spreading unchecked, while the board has not allowed us to close the school. The city's education department has allowed classes to be sent home after one or two students are diagnosed to interrupt chains of infection. Heads of schools have not been happy with the board's help in combating the pandemic. They have been put in charge of ordering isolation and been forced to look for sick students and teachers. The disease is spreading rapidly, while heads of schools have only sporadically gotten information from the Health Board in cases where students or teachers have taken ill. There has been a long delay and more people have been infected in that time," Pajula said in terms of why the city decided to take matters into its own hands.
He said that the capital's educational institutions have seen new outbreaks every week and the city wants to prevent the virus reaching every single school.
"Nearly 90 percent of schools have seen outbreaks. Infection has always gone up after school holidays as people have traveled and been in contact with others. That is why this common decision was made," Pajula explained.
However, several principals of Tallinn schools have voiced displeasure with Tallinn's decision, finding that remote study will not have an effect in a situation where most students and teachers are vaccinated. Pajula claims no one was against the decision in the end.
"It was not a popular decision to make, while the driving fear was that all schools would be closed three weeks from now in which case we would be talking about a 50-day remote study period."
Heads of the city and schools are set to meet again next week to discuss whether to extend the distance learning period by one week.
Health Board: Remote learning an extreme measure
Health Board spokesperson Imre Kaas commented on Tallinn's decision on Thursday and said two situations must be distinguished. One is sending schools to remote learning, a decision made by the school independently and the other situation is when the Health Board implements the Communicable Diseases Prevention and Control Act (NETS) which gives them the right to close a school or restrict activities.
"As has been explained by Chancellor of Justice Ülle Madise, the educational establishment makes the decision to go on remote learning. The Health Board can only give directives and recommendations based on the epidemical situation in the specific school or region. Taking a school to remote learning is the most extreme measure, meant to be implemented when it is no longer possible to limit the spread of infection with other measures," Kaas said.
NETS gives the board the right to close schools temporarily and restrict activities. "If such a decision is made, each educational institution must decide how they will reorganize studies. The Health Board has not issued such an administrative act and it is an extreme measure intended for cases where decision for a large amount of educational establishments have to be made," the Health Board spokesperson added.
"The Health Board has not been approached for an expert assessment in terms of Tallinn schools. Only one capital city school has come to the Health Board to get an assessment on the establishment's epidemiological situation," Kaas said.
He added that temporary remote learning must be justified by an actual risk to the health of students and their family members.
"Although there is epidemic spread of the coronavirus in the country, educational establishments do not have to suffer because of it. They have been successful in limiting the spread. Remote learning does not mean changes for students, but for entire families, fathers and mothers, who must also reorganize," Kaas noted.
The city of Pärnu also announced a decision to take schools to remote learning for two weeks after the school break ends next week. Kaas confirmed that the Health Board was aware of the decision.
"Pärnu schools turned to the Health Board to get a recommendation and school managers made a decision to go on remote learning. The main factor in the decision was the extensive spread of infections compared to other Estonian counties," the Health Board spokesperson said.
Editor: Marcus Turovski