Janša, medical experts not keen on prompt school reopening

Ljubljana – PM Janez Janša and medical experts are not in favour of schools and kindergartens reopening soon, arguing the epidemiological situation has worsened after Christmas holidays, when some socialising and business restrictions were briefly relaxed.

Janša said as he met representatives of teachers on Wednesday that the government would decide on the matter on Thursday, but could not tell what the decision would be.

He said, however, that schools would almost certainly not open on Monday, when, in the best-case scenario, staff could be tested for the new coronavirus.

He said school reopening mainly depended on the epidemiological situation and hospitals’ capacity to accept more Covid-91 patients.

Milan Krek, the director of the National Institute of Public Health (NIJZ), said the latest figures and projections showed the number of infections and hospital admissions would increase in the coming days. He hopes the situation will start improving at the end of January.

Janša said the government had been aware that the partial relaxation of restrictions at the end of 2020 would worsen the epidemiological situation.

However, it decided to partly lift the restrictions after the European Council assessed that the psychological consequences of the restrictions could do more harm than partly relaxing some.

Janša said allowing thousands of new contacts a day throughout Slovenia if schools reopen could result in distance learning lasting until April or May, “which we don’t want”.

He urged some more patience to “overcome this post-holiday wave”, while reiterating that education was a priority in terms of relaxing coronavirus restrictions.

Janša mentioned a possibility of opting for a partial reopening, with Krek pointing to Belgium, which alternates two-week in-person classes and two-week remote schooling.

Fani al Mansour, the head of the Association of Secondary Schools, said they were in favour of model C, which for secondary schools means half of students coming to school and the rest studying at home alternating every two weeks.

SVIZ trade union head Branimir Štrukelj was meanwhile surprised to hear schools would not reopen next week, at least for primary school children in years 1 to 3.

He said that was his understanding of a recent statement by Education Minister Simona Kustec, and reiterated that schools and kindergartens must open as soon as possible.

Kustec and other participants also said they were in favour of a prompt reopening of schools and kindergartens, which should however be done safely and not at all cost.

Although the representatives of teachers are willing to contribute to a safe reopening, the two sides did not sign a statement on gradual return to kindergartens and schools.

Some thought it shifts too much responsibility on schools if things go wrong, so Janša proposed a new statement should be written and signed next week if it proved acceptable.

Responding to today’s meeting, ex-Education Minister Jernej Pikalo of the opposition Social Democrats (SD) urged the government to come up with a clear plan so that schools could reopen in the next ten days.

He said the government was blaming everyone else but itself for school children being at home for 75 days now, criticising it for taking “ineffective measures”.

Pikalo believes the government is causing more confusion and distress because it is not clear what would follow from week to week, wondering who would take responsibility for it.

A call for relaunching in-person education as soon as possible also came from mental health experts, who warned the restrictions could take a major toll on children and the youth, not only in terms of knowledge but also their emotional and social development.

“Research from advanced countries shows that more than 80% of the youth with mental disorders report a worsening of symptoms during the epidemic, especially suicidal thoughts, and almost 30% cannot access the needed help during this time,” the Association of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry said in a press release.

It said that extending distance learning entailed less physical activity and more screen time, with children with autism and other neurological disorders at particular risk.