As an increasing number of predictions (even those of the government) estimated the peak of the coronavirus epidemic outbreak around the days of graduation exams, postponement has become a major issue and topic of debate in Hungary. While the opposition and teacher’s unions want the extension, the government insists on keeping to the original date, but with some added special protective measures.
In Hungary, matriculation exams are usually comprised of written and oral sections. In addition, the exam (or rather the results) also serve as a basis for admission to higher education institutions (except for certain universities that require special exams). The government announced weeks ago that this year only the written part would be held. Those who don’t want to take it now can take it in the autumn period without any negative consequences.
After the announcement, an increasing number of experts and politicians, including the Chief Medical Officer and the Prime Minister, predicted that the coronavirus will peak on or around May 3rd. Many added, that the “peak” meant a plateau period potentially lasting for days or more likely, weeks. Meanwhile, the restrictions on movement are still in force. No wonder this has generated a great debate, as this year around 83,000 students are due to pass the secondary school graduation exams and at least 6,000 teachers will be involved during the exam period.
Even the government seemed uncertain, while Secretary of State for public education, Zoltán Maruzsa, claimed that “once the epidemic situation makes it necessary, school exit exams will be moved.” It is also true, however, that the spread of the pandemic in Hungary is staying well behind the expected rate, and it is more or less stagnating now.
As government-critical Index showed, besides the political and epidemiological debate, organizational difficulties also need to be addressed. These were reflected in the most recent statement of the Democratic Trade Union of Teachers (PDSZ). The professional organization had initially harshly argued for the postponement. At one point, it even instructed and called up teachers to take out holiday leave for the days of the exams, should the government decide on holding them at the original date. The state secretary’s reaction to this call drew controversy, as he compared PDSZ to anarchist group Rote Armee Fraktion.
In reaction to recent news that the Ministry of Human Capacities (EMMI) finally seemed more open for consultations with the professional bodies, PDSZ described three main and basic points to abide by during the exams: managing the examination of the vulnerable groups of students; ensuring safe working conditions for the teachers and the creation of “professionally impeccable” conditions with special regard to the personnel and staff, and procedures and other conditions required by law.
PDSZ, however, still insists that the conditions to safely hold the exams are not met.
Opposition wants postponement
No doubt, the government has come under great pressure from the opposition as well, who also wants deferment. While left-liberal Democratic Coalition leader Ferenc Gyurcsány said it was an “insane decision,” the Socialists (MSZP) demand an explanation for the government’s reasons.
Pro-Fidesz Századvég's survey found that four-fifths of Hungarians agree to 'hold written school exit exams under strict security rules.' While, according to the findings of Pulzus Market Research, made on behalf of liberal-leaning commercial channel ATV, two-thirds of Hungarians think that 'it is not possible to hold graduation exams safely at the height of the epidemic.'
According to green-liberal Párbeszéd’s MP Bence Tordai, “[ruling] Fidesz is still refusing to listen to teachers, professional organizations, and students, despite warnings that it is extremely dangerous and irresponsible to organize the exams at this time.” And in right-wing opposition Jobbik’s deputy leader’s view, it is “mad” to hold the exams “at the peak of the virus.”
Maruzsa already decided but there is still a way back
Anyhow, contrary to matters of similar importance that are usually decided by the Prime Minister, the PMO leader explicitly said that Maruzsa will decide on this one. The state secretary, who will himself work as a chairman of the examination committee in one of the schools, is authorized to make the final decision.
After last week’s speculations, he now seemed more determined, and told pro-government public Kossuth Rádió that, although there was still “nothing set in stone,” the decision had to be made; therefore, last Friday they chose to discontinue looking at the epidemic data and kick-off the exams on May 4th.
He also revealed that only 10 students can be in one classroom at a time, and that students who still don’t know whether to have the exams now or only in the autumn period can make the decision as late as the morning of the exam.
Is ‘Peak Day’ still safer than a postponement?
However, views on holding the graduation exams on the very next day after the supposed peak of the coronavirus epidemic can be changed if we take another thing into consideration. As last week the Innovation Minister, and a day later the Prime Minister, said the government is planning to ease the restrictions in Hungary and “restart life” in early May. PM Orbán added that once it would happen, “there could be some surprises” if the virus breaks loose. He also claimed that they had prepared for a worst-case scenario by freeing up thousands of hospital beds. Hence, it is quite possible that the risks of “restarting life” could result in another (and larger peak) a few weeks later. So maybe the first week of May is still the safest option for holding the graduation exams this semester.
featured photo illustration by Zoltán Máthé/MTI