Armenian schools to open September 15: epidemiologists, education experts warn of risks
Pupils will return to schools in Armenia starting September 15.
The World Health Organization recommends transferring children to full-time education if the situation with the spread of COVID-19 is controlled in the country. According to doctors, Armenia has already passed the peak of the spread of the virus, and the Ministry of Education decided to follow the WHO recommendations.
Full-time education in schools will resume, despite the risk of an increase in the number of infections after their opening, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan said.
In this regard, he urged people “to be vigilant and adhere to strict discipline, observing all epidemiological standards, otherwise, the country will return to a critical situation.” Epidemiologists also warn of the threat of a new coronavirus outbreak after the resumption of lessons in schools.
The Ministry of Education reports that together with the commandant’s office, they are developing a set of measures to organize the educational process. They promise to publish this document in the near future.
So far, there is a decision to resume full-time classes only in general education, music and art schools and vocational colleges. It is not yet clear whether universities will open.
Are the authorities rushing?
David Melik-Nubaryan, a lecturer at the Department of Public Health and Health at Yerevan State University, suggests that the risks of a new outbreak of the virus after the opening of schools are very high. Therefore, he believes that the authorities should not rush to resume full-time studies.
But since the decision has already been made, Melik-Nubaryan hopes Armenia’s experience in combating COVID-19 and the skills already acquired will help avoid mistakes and deteriorations in the situation.
Melik-Nubaryan says it would be worth launching a pilot project in several schools in the capital and in a number of villages, summarizing the data obtained in order to understand how dangerous it is for the health of children and teachers, and how it affects the spread of the virus:
“This is a very sensitive question, since we are talking about children and teachers, many of whom, due to their age, are at risk.”
The World Health Organization says that though children are less vulnerable to infection, if they return to school full time then complete precautions should be in place; that is, schools should be equipped with equipment for washing hands with soap and water, without which the safe operation of school institutions in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic is impossible.
Meanwhile, many schools in Armenia are not provided with even these basic sanitary conditions.
“Online classes cannot replace full-time education”
Education expert Serob Khachatryan believes that children need to attend school, both in terms of mental health, emotional and physical health. And these needs cannot be met in online classes.
“If the pandemic ended in a couple of months, it would be possible not to open schools and continue classes online. But if this stretches out for another six months or a year, then the quality of education may seriously suffer”, Khachatryan says, adding nevertheless it would be preferable to open only primary school grades – that is, from 1 to 4 – in the capital, as well as small schools in villages, where up to 150 children study.
It is easier to create the necessary conditions here, classes can be conducted in classes with two or three children and maintain a social distance, and the spread of the virus can be prevented easier in villages than in Yerevan, where the schools are relatively large and in each class there are on average up to 30 students. The smallest school in the capital has up to 300 students, which in itself already creates risks of mass infection.
The Ministry of Education has not yet published the set of solutions that should help avoid these problems.
Serob Khachatryan suggests that the classes may be divided and classes will be held in two shifts.
But this raises the question of who will pay the teachers for additional classes. In addition, there are teachers with a workload of 20-25 hours per week. Will they be overwhelmed by 40-50 hours of work per week?
The measures discussed proposed closing cafeterias in schools, providing schools with hot water, organizing shifts. It is also planned to prohibit parents from entering the school.
Even the school curriculum is being revised. It will exclude subjects and activities during which it is difficult to exclude close contact between children – for example, physical education, dancing.
Khachatryan is especially concerned about the issue of transport, since it is difficult to ensure all the necessary epidemiological standards in fixed-route taxis and buses when they are overcrowded. And there is still no word as to whether schoolchildren will be provided with separate transport.
In the case of universities, according to Serob Khachatryan, it is better to continue studying online during the pandemic.