Turkey starts new school year for 18 mln students amid COVID-19 concerns

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The new school year began on Monday for Turkey’s 18 million students amid anxiety about the lack of sufficient measures against COVID-19 after an 18-month break caused by the pandemic.

In the new school year students in all classes will attend 40-minute lessons five days a week. The school cafeterias, canteens and dormitories have also been opened.

Parents, however, are concerned about the full opening of schools without proper measures against the rising number of COVID-19 infections.

Confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Turkey increased by 19,391 and 269 more deaths were registered in the last 24 hours, according to Health Ministry data released on Sunday.

“It is clear that physical distance cannot be maintained without reducing the number of students in a classroom, and the risk of transmission cannot be eliminated without enforcing social distancing rules. The only solution is to pare down the classrooms, which, in turn, depends on building additional classrooms and appointing additional teachers,” the Student Parent Association said in a statement.

Another concern is about vaccination rates among teachers and students. Around 73 percent of teachers are fully vaccinated, while most of the students are unvaccinated.

According to the guidelines on measures against COVID-19 prepared by the Ministry of National Education in collaboration with the Health Ministry and sent to local education directorates on Aug. 24, full vaccination is recommended for teachers, teaching assistants, canteen staff and bus drivers for in-person education.

People who are not fully vaccinated will have to submit negative PCR test result twice a week if they are to have contact with students. There is, however, no such requirement for students.

Everyone in schools, including students and staff, will be required to wear masks regardless of their vaccination status.

The close contact and status of risk to students, teachers and other staff will be monitored by the ministry and schools will be notified, while HES code queries will be made before entry to schools.

The HES (Hayat Eve Sığar – Life Fits into Home) code, developed by the Health Ministry, helps people safely share their COVID-19 risk status with institutions and individuals for activities such as transportation or visits. Shared HES codes can be checked through an app or services provided to institutions.

İkram Atabay, secretary-general of the left-wing Education and Science Workers’ Union (Eğitim-Sen), told Deutsche Welle (DW) Turkish service that the ministry has provided information only about vaccinations, tests and masks while failing to clarify other matters.

“There is no explanation about the number of additional classrooms built. There is no statement about how many teachers have been appointed,” he said.

Although the ministry had recruited 20,000 contract teachers ahead of the new school year, Atabay said the contract teacher system was flawed, adding that there weren’t enough teachers. “Currently, at least 100,000 teachers have to be recruited [in order to reduce the number of students in a classroom],” he said.

Çiğdem Arslan, from the School Health Work Group of the Turkish Medical Association (TTB), drew attention to the fact the ministry’s guidelines failed to provide information about school infrastructure. “We don’t really know if schools are ready,” she told DW.

Arslan argued that the ministry had not taken into consideration the different conditions in various provinces and districts by proceeding with a general plan.

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