The Malta Independent 7 May 2021, Friday

Covid-19 school guidelines published: ‘On-line or hybrid method will always be a fallback’

Thursday, 3 September 2020, 14:31 Last update: about 9 months ago

The health authorities have released the Covid-19 advice and guidelines for the reopening of primary and secondary schools in September, suggesting that although physical presence in school is the primary option, an online or mixed method could also be utilised when needed.

The guidelines were proposed by the health authorities, however a spokesperson for the Health Ministry said that how they will be implemented will be up to the educational ministry.

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It was announced on Wednesday that Malta will be sticking to its original plan to re-open schools on 28 September, with protocols established to limit the spread of Covid-19 as much as possible.

The guidelines indeed highlight that the primary aim is that of having students physically present in school, but add that it should also be acknowledged that the opening of schools will bring different households together who would not normally mix. “Re-opening of in-person learning is a balance of the educational needs of the students and taking the necessary precautions to minimise the risk of transmission of COVID-19 to the school community and beyond.”

The highlight however, that “in general, there are three possible scenarios under consideration for the re-opening of schools for the 2020/2021 scholastic year. Firstly, that all children return school for traditional classroom-based education. Secondly, a hybrid/blended model where a mix of face to face learning and virtual lessons takes place. Thirdly a 100 % virtual learning with no face to face teaching .The choice of scenario depends on many factors including the epidemiological situation that the country is going through, the rate of community transmission and the (limited) available evidence regarding transmission chains in children and the experiences from overseas regarding how the re-opening of schools effected the extent of community transmission.”

“What is certain is that all schools need to be prepared to adopt all three of these approaches at some point or other throughout the next scholastic year.”

The Education Ministry seems to be moving towards the first option.

The guidelines highlight that the on-line or hybrid option will always be a standard default or fall back for all schools and years. There are a number of reasons for this noted in the guidelines, including that if a positive case is detected in a school, many students and staff would need to go into quarantine and their schooling would need to continue from home, as well as the fact that once autumn and winter set in, many children and staff would be advised to remain home if sick. “The absenteeism rate would certainly increase, and so provisions need to be made to cater for staff and students who are home sick.”

The guidelines recognise, among other things, that in a situation of sustained community virus spread, partial or full school closures might be needed.

The document outlines that the smaller the cohort size for in-person learning the lower the risk to students, staff and their families. “Schools are enjoined to keep the size of each bubble or cohort as small as is feasible.” As an example of how schools can keep such sizes, the guidelines highlight that timetables may need to be adjusted/changed to have smaller class bubbles or cohorts and to reduce the level of contact between the students.

They also highlight that staggered start times/ end times and use of different entrances around the school may decrease the crowding of children on arrival and departure from school.

The guidelines highlight that maximum efforts should be made to maintain an adequate physical distance of 1.5 metres between students. They also state that the mixing of students should be minimized as much as possible.

“Children over 3 years of age should be advised to wear masks and/or visors in the common areas and on school transport but this is not necessary within their own classrooms or when they are in the presence of the members of the same bubble/cluster. At senior/secondary school level (for students born in 2009 or earlier), it is recommended that students wear masks and/or visors at all times, including in their class, besides in common areas and on transport. An exception to the wearing of mask or visors is when students are exercising.”

Staff members are required to wear a face mask and/or visor at all times when in the presence of others (both other staff/ students).

The guidelines stress that considerations must be made for all staff members in staff rooms to keep an adequate physical distance of two metres from other staff members. It must be ensured that in staff rooms, adequate care is taken to avoid mixing of staff members and where desks are used for corrections, persons always maintain the requisite social distance. “If a system of ‘hot desking’ is in operation, each person should be responsible to clean the surfaces and shared electronics with suitable agents before and after use. Meetings should be held virtually wherever possible.”

Secondary school children generally move around classes depending on their subjects of choice, the guidelines read. “Very accurate records would need to be kept of the movements of students at all times in order to facilitate contract tracing by the Public Health authorities should there be a COVID-19 positive case. This information would be used when carrying out the risk assessment by the Health Authorities.”

They also recommend shorter duration of lessons to reduce accumulating exposure between students.

The health authorities also stressed the importance of enforcing the policy of staying home if unwell for both students and staff members.

In addition, in a situation of sustained community spread of coronavirus, one must view the guidance for educational institutions as being bi-directional, on occasion partial/full school closures may need to be instituted with learning continuing by virtual means until it is possible to resume in-person learning again.”

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