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Schools and kindergartens faced with many issues week before opening

Ljubljana, 11 May - A week before kindergartens and schools are set to open again after more than two months of the Covid-19 epidemic in Slovenia, a number of questions about logistics, the well-being of children and staff remain open.

Children playing football.
Photo: Domen Grögl/STA

On Friday, the Education Ministry issued guidelines encouraging parents to keep kindergarten children at home, if possible. Most students will stay home in any case as schools reopen on Monday.

The final decision is yet to be made. The government is to give the final go-ahead or stop the process in the second half of this week.

The Education Ministry and the National Institute for Public Health (NIJZ) held a press conference on Monday to provide some of the answers.

State secretary Damir Orehovec said the changes will demand a lot of knowledge and organisational skills. "But I am certain that they will do everything in their power for the benefit of children and youths."

However, the Association of Kindergartens and the teachers' trade union SVIZ have reservations about whether this is the right course of action or even feasible in the first place.

Janja Bogataj, the head of the Association of Kindergartens, is worried about how kindergartens will be able to follow NIJZ instructions, which, among other things, stipulate that groups, now numbered between 16 and 20, will be limited to only 8 or 10 children depending on age.

One of the main questions - whether parents who keep their children home will still receive a kindergarten bill - was clarified today when Orehovec said that there will be no bills until the end of May for those who keep their kids home.

Bogataj told the STA over the weekend that not having to pay would encourage parents to keep children home and make it easier for kindergartens to organise.

Branimir Štrukelj of the teachers' trade union told the STA over the weekend that initial feedback from parents in Ljubljana indicated that about 60% of children would return to kindergarten.

Another issue is space, as many kindergartens in Slovenia are overcrowded as it is. In many cases, nearby schools will help by providing room in empty classrooms, even though this is not seen as an optimal solution.

One more key problem is that kindergarten head teachers do not yet know how many members of their staff will be able to return to work, as teachers and other staff with chronic illness are advised against coming to work.

It will be up to occupational medicine experts to deem staff able or unable to work. Štrukelj doubts it is feasible for all the at-risk staff to be examined in a week's time.

Moreover, he says that work in kindergartens, as set out by NIJZ and the government, is not feasible "with the existing staff".

Bogataj and Štrukelj share the view that the return to kindergarten will be very stressful for children. Not only have they not been to kindergarten for two months, they will have to say goodbye to their parents at the door, where they will be received by a member of the staff wearing a mask.

Štrukelj believes that the rule about the same teacher staying with the same group at all times will inevitablya have to be broken because abiding by it would mean 11-hour work days for teachers in some kindergartens.

Bogataj echoed the position that rules are to strict on kindergarten kids. "I believe that we will not be waiting for kids in front of kindergartens at 5am and I believe that in case of stress, parents will be able to enter the building and say goodbye so as to avoid worsening the stress the kids are under."

Polonca Truden Dobrin of NIJZ said that children within an individual group and their teacher will be able to "communicate just like at home", meaning they will not have to wear a mask and observe social distancing rules, as children's need for physical comfort and the feeling of safety must not be neglected.

In schools as well the number of students in a classroom will be limited to between 10 and 15. Moreover, only a portion of students will return, others will continue with home schooling.

In primary school, only students of first, second and third grades, and students of the final grade, will return to classrooms. In secondary school, only final-year students will return.

In music schools, only individual sessions will be taught in person, while group sessions will remain online.

The fact that most teachers will be teaching in school, as well as online, and the additional workload this creates, is one of the main concerns of SVIZ, with Štrukelj expressing doubt that this is even possible. Teachers wonder whether they will be fairly compensated.

Štrukelj has said that teachers teaching individual subjects are not adequately trained to teach other subjects. Just like in kindergartens, it is unclear as yet how many teachers will return to work.

Štrukelj reiterated that the trade union was reserved about reopening of schools and kindergartens at this stage, and expects the NIJZ and the Education Ministry to take full responsibility for the process. "We will do everything that is in our power, but we are no miracle workers.

Another problem was highlighted by Srečko Šestan, the head of the Civil Protection Authority, which has been handing out masks to schools and kindergartens. Šestan said that Slovenia might run out of protective equipment unless it continues to replenish its stock.

Face masks will be mandatory for teachers and all other kindergarten and school staff. They will also be mandatory for secondary schools students at all times, while ninth-graders will have to wear them outside the classroom. The students of the first three grades will not have to wear them.

© STA, 2020