Among the various common challenges raised by the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, the issue of how to bring pupils back into classrooms in a safe way has been among the most pressing in recent weeks.
In Bulgaria, the initial disruption of the lockdown triggered by the pandemic – lasting for two months between mid-March and mid-May – saw schools switch to distance learning until the end of the 2019/2020 school year.
Year-end exams were cancelled, the sole exception being made for school-leaving exams and tests administered to year-seven pupils, which are a key component of the high school placement process.
By most accounts, the sudden switch to distance learning was largely successful, given the short notice to make the change, but despite that, the Education Ministry has been unwilling to begin the new school year in the same fashion that the previous one ended.
A task force between education and health ministry experts spent months drafting guidelines that the Education Ministry published at the end of August. The guidelines contain both mandatory and optional measures, aiming to give individual schools a degree of flexibility in finding their own optimal set of practices.
Speaking at the weekend, just days before the new school year starts on its traditional date of September 15, Education Minister Krassimir Vulchev reiterated that this approach was chosen by design.
Concentrating all decision-making authority at the ministry risked potential harm, he said. “Not all measures can be applied in all schools. When the system works in conditions of greater decentralisation, it works better, but we have to set the goal and give direction,” he told public broadcaster Bulgarian National Radio.
Separately, chief state health inspector Angel Kunchev backed the guidelines, saying that they could, if observed scrupulously to limit contact between pupils in different classes, help make schools safer places than most.
Among the guidelines’ mandatory measures are protocols regarding potential and confirmed cases of Covid-19, as follows:
If a pupil shows at least one of the symptoms consistent with possible coronavirus infection, they are to be isolated in a specially-designated area and must wear a mask. Parents or guardians must be contacted to take the pupil home and must be given a reminder of the medical recommendations to follow – avoiding physical contact and contacting their general practitioner, who would advise them on the next steps (including the possibility of having a PCR test). After the pupil leaves the isolation area, the area is to be disinfected as soon as possible. The pupil would be allowed back to school only with a medical notice from a general practitioner certifying full health.
In cases where an adult shows at least one of the symptoms associated with Covid-19, the protocol is similar, but includes the school director notifying the health inspectorate of the case and providing a list of all contact persons. Additionally, the parents of all pupils who were in contact with that member of staff are to be notified by the school.
If a pupil or a school’s staff member has a positive PCR test result for coronavirus, parents (or the staff member) must notify the school’s director, who in turn is required to provide the local health inspectorate with a full list of other pupils and teachers who have been in contact with the pupil. The measures that the school will have to take next would be ordered by the health inspectorate and could include the quarantine of just one class or shutting down the entire school.
The inspectorate would designate the people who have to enter quarantine, after carrying out a risk assessment, but could include other pupils in the same class and others who had unprotected contact (closer than two metres for longer than 15 minutes without a mask), as well as the pupil’s family members, teachers and other staff that had unprotected contact with the pupil in the previous two to 14 days before the appearance of symptoms.
Quarantined people are to be instructed to be on the lookout for Covid-19 symptoms, which they would have to communicate to their general practitioners and health inspectors. After the pupil and other quarantined people leave the school, all premises that they have been in contact with in the previous 48 hours must be thoroughly disinfected and aired before they can be used again.
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