In order to slow down the spread of the coronavirus epidemic, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán just announced strict restrictions which will take effect from Wednesday at midnight. This includes the closure of schools. For students over the age of 14 (8th grade in high schools), digital education will be introduced. Nurseries, kindergartens, and primary schools will remain open to those under 14 years of age. School and kindergarten teachers, and nursery staff will be tested on a weekly, targeted basis.
The debate between parents, teachers, trade unions, and the government on the closure of schools has been dragging on for weeks, even months. Until now, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán was determined to keep schools open. However, as the epidemic situation has worsened in the country and the health care sector is more and more overloaded, the government had no other choice but to tighten the restrictions concerning schools as well.
The decision was preceded by weeks of debate. On Sunday, the Democratic Union of Hungarian Teachers (PDSZ) for example had already called on families not to let their children go to school because protection from the virus was not ensured. In September, parents were promised that schools would be protected and they would shift to digital education in epidemic-affected institutions, but this did not happen in many places. According to the latest information from the official epidemic site koronavirus.gov.hu, 78 classes and 30 full schools were involved in school closures, but according to investigative portal válaszonline.hu, some 800 classes and 75 schools should have been closed or partly closed based on the number of infections.
Chief Medical Officer Cecília Müller recently reported that a total of 770 children under the age of 15 had been confirmed to be infected with the coronavirus in two weeks. Although barely four percent of new coronaviruses are of this age group and the virus is not the most dangerous to them, it is not negligible in terms of the spread of the infection, as they also come into contact with their teachers and parents every day, who can further spread the disease.
The spread of the virus between teachers is the other problem. Anna Komjáthy, Acting Chair of the National Board of the Democratic Union of Hungarian Teachers (PDSZ), told Népszava that “complaints are pouring in to us, and in several schools they are not even telling their colleagues whether the others are infected with coronavirus or not.” Komjáthy said she knows of an institution in Budapest where one of the teachers was away for two weeks, but the management did not want to reveal anything about their condition, citing sensitive personal data. It was only later revealed that they were infected with coronavirus, but no contact research was done. There is also an institution in the capital, where 20 percent of the faculty was missing at the beginning of the week.
The PDSZ also published a resolution stating that the situation in education is critical and that now there is no choice but to revive digital education in all institutions. The Teachers’ Union (PSZ) also expected more serious action from the government. A few days ago, President Zsuzsa Szabó said that a full school closure like the one in the spring would not be considered a great solution, but where there is only one infected student, teacher, or other school worker, online learning should be ordered immediately for at least ten days. And those who have been quarantined should only go back to the institution if they have a negative coronavirus test.
Szabó also emphasized that something should be done immediately to protect teachers with chronic illnesses so that there would be no more deaths. After last week’s autumn break, several cases of teachers dying from coronavirus were reported: teachers in Tiszafüred, Nyíregyháza, Ercsi, and Makó died, some of them proving to be infected with coronavirus. According to Blikk.hu, a total of six teachers lost their lives because of coronavirus.
As we also reported last week, students and teachers have petitioned the government to tighten restrictions. The Democratic Union of Teachers (PDSZ) and the Teachers’ Union (PSZ) also previously called on the government to provide regular tests for teachers and exempt endangered teachers from working; however, the government rejected both requests.
Opposition parties and unions have also long asked the government to test school teachers, kindergarten teachers, and nursery staff regularly. However, so far they did not have the capacity for it. Budapest has launched an initiative to start testing teachers from the municipality’s resources, to which the opposition Socialists (MSZP) have decided to contribute HUF 1 million (EUR 2,700).
The Orbán government had long denied to change. As recent as Thursday, PMO Head Gergely Gulyás said the government believed the latest round of restrictions would be enough to slow the epidemic and schools could stay open. No further restrictions are required in the public education system, he said, noting that the country must continue to function.
After all, PM Orbán announced today on Facebook that universities and secondary schools above the eighth grade will return to digital education while facilities for children under the age of 14 will remain open. The new measures will be effective as of midnight on Tuesday, so the first day of school closures will be Wednesday.
Now with the new, stricter measures, the government has finally decided to provide weekly, targeted testing to all teachers and nursery staff, who are still working on site.
Meanwhile on Monday, following the PM’s announcement, state secretary for education Zoltán Maruzsa lambasted the teachers’ union PDSZ, saying they were “trying to thwart [coronavirus] protection efforts” when calling on parents to keep their children home from school and kindergarten. “It is not in the children’s interest to stay at home and be left behind in school,” he said. Schools where the virus has appeared will be closed and return to digital education, he said, adding that “stoking panic” and keeping individual children away from schools and kindergartens that are not infected is not part of the solution. Maruzsa called on PDSZ to “at least stop hindering protection efforts if they cannot help.”
Featured photo illustration by Zsolt Szigetváry/MTI