Court: Tallinn schools should not have been placed on remote learning

Tallinn Administrative Court on Pärnu mnt.
Tallinn Administrative Court on Pärnu mnt. Source: Riigikohus.ee

A court has found that the principals of four Tallinn schools acted illegally when they placed students on remote learning last November.

The second-tier Tallinn Administrative Court in its ruling also satisfied complaints filed on behalf of the schoolchildren in relation to the implementation of remote learning in Tallinn, adding that significant errors of judgment had been made.

The Health Board (Terviseamet), as the central authority in this field, had not provided a risk assessment which stated that schools should be placed on remote learning, and the city of Tallinn had not provided the court with sufficient reasons on why the board's position had been disregarded.

The court also found that the quality of supervision in remote learning, as well as the quantity of learning engendered, was smaller than that obtained in class.

The court also prohibited the further implementation of remote learning if its consequences and those of other restrictions and measures were not properly taken into consideration.

The consequences of distance learning on children and their families were not considered in the move, the court found.

The principle that the transition to distance learning does not affect a student's right to access education was clarified.

At the same time, the administrative court found that schools have the right to decide how to organize their education. 

"Remote learning is the only way to continue learning when the government or other state administrative body has barred school attendance, as in the spring of 2020 and 2021, or when the student is in quarantine or isolation."

"However, the use of remote learning is not in itself a ban on entering and remaining in a school's premises, and may therefore be inappropriate in limiting the spread of an infectious disease," the court continued.

Nonetheless, based on the information provided by the schools, the complainant families perceived that they and their children had not been allowed to attend school during the remote learning period.

The decision has not entered into force, and can be challenged, no later than March 2, 2022.

The court also found that other measures, such as rapid testing, which would have impacted on schoolchildren's right to education less severely, were not considered, either by the city or by individual schools.

A school is more than just a space for contact teaching, but also provides teaching aids, a suitable environment for learning, a supervisory and educational function, school lunches and refreshments, school health care and the opportunity for children and young people to communicate directly with their peers, the court found.

The administrative court also issued guidelines in its decision, which must be taken into account when applying distance learning in the capital.

The court acknowledged that the spread of the virus, the severity of illnesses, related legislation and policy choices could change over time, and with all that in mind, the court barred the city of Tallinn, including schools, from continuing to use distance learning in order to prevent the spread of Covid's infectious disease without looking at alternative possible measures, without considering the consequences for students and their families and possible mitigation measures and by neglecting to state that distance learning does not constitute a ban on being in a mobility or school building on its own, or by indirectly prohibiting or impeding a stay within a school building.

Distance learning was out in place for grades 4-8 at municipal schools after their return from the half-term break in early November, for a two-week period.

The respective decisions were formalized by the school principals in the form of directives, and were aimed at preventing the spread of Covid, with the poor epidemiological situation, including that in hospitals, plus the reduction in vaccination protection for teachers, given as rationale.

Remote learning was used nationally earlier on in the pandemic, from spring to the end of the 2020 academic year, and again during a substantial portion of the following academic year. With the arrival of vaccines and rapid tests in 2021, the policy has been largely to keep schools open, though other municipalities, in including Pärnu, placed schools on remote learning last fall. Most schools in Estonia have been conducting twice- or thrice-weekly rapid tests among students and staff, and reporting the results to the education ministry.

Tallinn mayor Mihhail Kõlvart (Center) said last week that there were no plans in place to send all schools in the capital to distance learning in the near future.

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Editor: Andrew Whyte

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