Teacher’s union: Not plausible to re-open schools with COVID-19 spike

Malta’s next big COVID headache: re-opening schools. Read reactions from parents and teachers

Teachers and their unions are adamant that schools do not re-open if new and active COVID-19 cases reach higher levels by 28 September, MaltaToday has learnt.

A spokesperson for the Malta Union of Teachers (MUT) told this newspaper that if the situation remains unchanged, it could not see it plausible to reopen schools.

“If today were the end of September, with the current number of cases and reproduction number exceeding 1, I could not see it as a plausible scenario to open schools,” the union said.

While the government has so far showed its intention to re-open schools, the education ministry has already drawn up and published contingency plans to cater for any possible scenario. These include schools opening, as usual, but also schools shutting down and a hybrid system that includes halving the number of students in each class to guarantee social distancing.

But the provisions have been met with derision by teachers who insist that the department is not taking their health and safety seriously, and that the lack of clear communication by the department is only making matters worse.

Reactions from teachers and parents

Joanna Mallia, a Zabbar primary school teacher, told MaltaToday that if cases were to be as high at the end of September as they are today, schools should definitely remain closed. “No way should anyone even consider opening schools in such a scenario and teachers will definitely not want to turn up for work with so many cases of coronavirus,” she said.

“Do not get me wrong, teachers are the first to insist that children should return to school and that children are better served attending schools, rather than having online schooling from home, but people must also understand how high the risk of infection is for teachers and students.”

Teachers are in constant contact with children all day long and it would take just one positive COVID-19 case for the virus to quickly spread to other children, families, and staff.

Even parents who spoke to MaltaToday, gave mixed reactions: some are extremely concerned for their children’s education, while others remain unconvinced that social distancing measures could be put into place in an effective enough manner.

A mother who wished to remain anonymous told MaltaToday that no matter what the situation looks like in September, she was sending both her children aged 13 and 16 back to school physically. “As far as I’m concerned, come what may, I will be sending my kids back to school because their education is my priority. My 13-year-old struggled with online schooling. She needs the social interaction,” she said.

In her case, she felt that the church school she was sending her younger daughter to was not able to provide a suitable work environment.

“Their system failed her, to the point where we had to pull her out and send her to a private school, which obviously will be a financial burden on us. But they had a more comprehensive online school plan and gave us reassurances that they will be putting policies in place to safeguard children when they reopen physically, such as classes with fewer numbers.”    

She was adamant that her children’s education was the priority. “At the end of the day, we have very few cases of COVID where people have had to be hospitalised so I don’t fear the virus. Yes, we need to be careful; but we also need to adjust to the new normal. I can’t put my children’s education on hold. Doing so would have serious long-term ramifications.”

Another parent, Grace Vella, said she had mixed feelings about schools reopening. “I want both my children to return to normality but my younger son is seriously asthmatic and I am terribly concerned about this.”

She highlighted her privileged position because her husband worked from home and was able to help their son with homework – however, Vella said that many of her friends were not in this same position. “I truly sympathise with these families and understand there isn’t a clear cut solution.”

She added that if schools where to go online, a clearer strategy was needed which included live interaction with students.

Another parent, Diandra Lanzon, said she would not be sending her son to school – who is still in the second year of kindergarten – having little faith the situation would have improved by September. “The health of my child and my family is my number one priority. How are they going to convince such young children to social distance? It won’t work,” she said.

Mallia echoed those concerns, asking how teachers were meant to remain safe. “Who do people think is the person who handles children’s homework, assignment, drawings? Who opens a child’s lunch bottle? Does anyone really expect us to hide behind some plastic and leave children to fend for themselves?”

Marilyn Agius, a Learning Support Educator at a government school, agreed. As an LSE she is in even closer contact to students and potentially at greater risk. “I love my job and cannot wait to go back to school and our classrooms, but I would not want to go if the number of coronavirus cases was still high,” she said. “What we are fearing is that the authorities will put our health at risk just to deliver on its commitment to open the schools, come what may.”

The Malta Union of Teachers spokesperson said the situation remains “very fluid” and that a re-evaluation was needed in seven weeks as the situation was constantly changing. “The MUT has been asking the education ministry for protocols, guidelines and the way forward for both scenarios so that everyone is prepared, whether schools open or otherwise. As we already stated, in March the world was caught off-guard but there is no such excuse this time around. The MUT is ready to start discussions immediately.”

Likewise, Mallia and Agius lamented the lack of communication from the education department, complaining that they had to learn of the three contingency plans drawn up from the press, and that they were never even notified about the decisions being taken.

Equally left in the dark are teachers in church schools. Ronald Sammut, a secondary school teacher, said he and his colleagues had to rely on media reports to learn about the options being discussed for the reopening of schools. “What is ironic is that, even with the lack of direction from government, many shops and businesses in Malta have already started to introduce measures themselves, such as the number of people allowed in a shop,” he said. “And yet the government continues to deny there is a growing problem and the education department seems intent on proving the prime minister right at all costs.”

But an education ministry spokesman insisted that every possible option had been considered in drawing up the contingency plans to ensure the best outcome however things developed in the weeks to come. “We carried out a huge exercise to ensure that – for every contingency – we have full syllabi already in place for every subject for every year, to ensure that any action we take is seamless and does not cause disruption.”

The spokesman said that the ministry’s decision as to whether schools open or remain closed come 28 September would ultimately be guided by the advice of the Health Department.

“Everyone wants the schools to open, not just us, including educators and parents,” they said. “It is, after all, all about safeguarding the children’s right to education – and proper education.”