Schools must in general stick to in-class learning, and only decide on remote learning on a case-by-case basis and where Covid rates justified it, health minister Tanel Kiik (Center) said Friday, adding a communication breakdown was to blame for schools having been informed otherwise.
Kiik's remarks followed a Health Board (Terviseamet) communique issued to schools Friday recommending the transfer to remote learning decided at local government level in those municipalities where high general Covid rates are currently present, a recommendation which came as an apparent surprise to both national and, in Tallinn at least, local government alike.
"The Health Board did make recommendations to those schools in areas of higher viral rates. Naturally, each school will assess the need for distance learning on their own, depending on the local situation, in other words how many cases, sick students or infected teachers there are in any given school. There will certainly be no centralized remote learning requirement for schools," Kiik told ERR on Friday.
ERR's Indrek Kiisler asked Kiik how the message had become public in the first place, if it was now being rowed back from.
Kiik said: "If you're asking about the communication between the Health Board and the Ministry of Education and Research, I am sorry if this information did not reach the parties immediately."
"The Health Board is in constant contact with local government and educational institutions, who seek advice and approve proposals. And, naturally, this information must also reach the Ministry of Education for major decisions," Kiik went on, the implication being that the ministry had been left out of the loop.
Education minister Liina Kersna (Reform) said on Friday that the Health Board's address had come as a surprise to her and had not been discussed before, expressing her displeasure at that fact.
Kiik concurred, saying: "Unfortunately, it really seems that not all parties were sufficiently aware of the proposals."
"As such, it is standard Health Board practice to communicate with local government education institutions. However, with major changes that no longer affect specific individual schools or classes, it is of course also prudent to communicate with the Ministry of Education and the government, to avoid inconsistencies," he went on.
"I agree that the last two years have been remarkably difficult for parents. Predictability and timely transmission of information are certainly important for them," Kiik added.
Kiik said that he could not comment on all the details of Thursday's communication as he had been traveling abroad for work purposes (for an EU meeting of health ministers in France, according to the social affairs ministry) but said he supported continuing in-school classes and transferring to remote learning only in the case of specific schools, where there were a large number of infected people, in specific classes."
The same principle would apply in the capital, where the recommendation had been to send all schools on distance learning save in the more affluent, outlying Nõmme and Pirita districts.
Kiik added that the board had made no formal proposal to the government to implement remote learning at present, adding that this was not the government's desire and that the recommendation had been just that – a recommendation.
Kiik added he understood that schools had received feedback from the board on the organization of classes, but ultimately, that all significant proposals and information must be clarified by the government first off.
Former Health Board chief: Board should be clear on reasons for its recommendations
Former head of the Health Board's emergency medicine department Martin Kadai said Friday that the agency must have a "very clear, substantive, epidemiological justification for making a recommendation on both the purpose and the desire of that recommendation."
While the board is legally entitled to make such recommendations, this is not the same as an obligation, which can only be issued by government.
Kadai also agreed that there had seemed to have been a discrepancy between the board's official line as communicated on Thursday and the education minister's position.
The Health Board wrote to schools Thursday recommending children switch to distance learning from next Monday, in areas of high prevalence of Covid and based on local municipality rates.
In Tallinn, while most districts were advised to go on remote learning, two were not, and the capital's mayor criticized the plans as "confusing", also pointing out that Tallinn's own decisions or plans to go on remote learning had met with criticism (and even with a court case - ed.).
Education minister Liina Kersna said the plan had not been discussed at yesterday's meeting with the government or raised by the Health Board prior to the letter being dispatched.
Editor: Andrew Whyte