Health Board: Tallinn's decision to implement remote learning not excessive

An empty classroom.
An empty classroom. Source: Olev Kenk/ERR

Health Board acting director Mari-Anne Härma said Mayor of Tallinn Mihhail Kõlvart's (Center) decision to send Tallinn municipal school students in grades 4-8 to remote learning was not excessive.

Georg, a fifth-grade student in Tallinn, usually makes it to school in a matter of minutes, but can join his classmates in seconds now. He will be on remote learning from Monday and will have to wear his school uniform throughout the school day, unlike some adults, ETV's weekly news show "Aktuaalne kaamera. Nädal" reported on Sunday.

"In spring, only a few classes were on [Microsoft] Teams, but all classes start at 9 a.m. now in spring and everything is organized according to the class schedule," Georg's mother Virge Haavasalu said.

The mother is most worried about her son being behind a computer all day and not moving much from his chair. There are days, when the child does not take more than 50 steps. "The big question is how sustainable this lifestyle is, what the future brings and can we be nailed down to our desks like this going forward," Haavasalu said.

"Aktuaalne kaamera" spoke to ten parents and most of them said children have already gotten used to remote learning and as long as there is an internet connection, they can manage. But there are exceptions.

Parents of teenagers do not rush to express their concerns, but admit that remote learning can be problematic for children at such a complicated age. While they managed to keep their things under control in schools, things can get out of hand at home.

Tallinn Kalamaja Basic School has done everything they can to make remote learning as comfortable as possible, the "Aktuaalne kaamera" team reported. Still, school director Piret Rõõmussaar said the school has received angry letters from parents. One parent even sent a death threat.

The school director, who managed a major coronavirus outbreak this fall, said the call to send some students to remote learning was the right one. "We should be a little more aware in terms of health and make bolder decisions. Tallinn's decision was not wrong. I support it. Really, the virus is very aggressive and spreads well. Why doubt the doctors of speaking about something with no truth behind it? Do we need things to get that critical?" Rõõmussaar said.

Tallinn's decision to keep students in grades 4-8 on remote learning last week angered Minister of Education and Research Liina Kersna (Reform), who said the city did not consult with the Health Board while making the decision.

Rõõmussaar has experience in communicating with the Health Board. "We reached an agreement that we could close two classes and that closure was completely my responsibility. I will certainly take that responsibility, because there is no reason to spread the virus," the school director said.

She said that if the board had let her send more students to remote learning right away, the school would have avoided the major outbreak. 45 of the nearly 520 students of Kalamaja Basic School were infected, 10 of the nearly 100 percent vaccinated teacher staff also got the virus.

Students of Tallinn had only been on remote learning for a few days after the school break (October 25-31) before Tallinn city government decided to extend the remote learning period by a week. This time, they consulted with the Health Board.

The board's acting director Mari-Anne Härma told ERR that the recommendation Tallinn received was that if they already implement remote learning, they might as well extend it for a second week. "Remote learning is an effective measure to get infections in schools under control. But schools without any actual problems should return to contact classes," Härma said.

She said Tallinna acted correctly. "From an epidemiological perspective, I think they did not go overboard, because it would have needed to be done at some point anyway. The decision was just made a little earlier," Härma said.

Education minister Liina Kersna said the city made the right call in reducing contacts, but the decision was not justified because of the high vaccination rate of students and teachers. "Aktuaalne kaamera" asked the minister about a possible minimum vaccination rate for schools so they would not be sent to remote learning at all.

"That is why we have given the right to make decisions and assessments to the Health Board. The Health Board must assess what the school's vaccination rate is and what the epidemiological situation is. We have had cases, where the vaccination rate in schools is high, but there are outbreaks in the grades, in which students cannot get vaccinated (up to age 12 - ed). Decisions must then be made in regards to the situation," Kersna said.

The minister said every fourth student gets infected in school, half of them are infected at home. A child falling ill should also not be an issue if their parents and grandparents are vaccinated.

"I do not want to agree with a position that would make children and young people responsible for our hospitals being overloaded, which would lead to us restricting children of their legislative right to quality education," Kersna said.

Tallinn mayor Mihhail Kõlvart said partial remote learning helps avoid schools being completely closed. The mayor said stricter measures cannot be ruled out, but a complete school closure can only be an option if the government decides to make it. He does not agree with the education minister and the Health Board about having to take student vaccination rates and regional infection rates into account when sending schools to remote learning.

"We are currently in a situation, where schools with a higher vaccination rate also have higher infection rates. We will not begin assessing or commenting it, but it is a fact. Another fact is that the city districts with higher vaccination rates also have higher infection rates. Again, this does not mean there is a link. But to say that specific districts or schools are to blame for there being fewer vaccinated people there is not correct nor right," Kõlvart said.

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Editor: Kristjan Kallaste

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