STA, 1 September 2021 - A new school year is starting today for almost 270,000 Slovenian primary and secondary school children and nearly 30,000 teachers. Classes will be held in person for everyone for now but with safety measures in place, including mandatory Covid certificates for staff. If schools flout the rules, they may be ordered to switch to remote classes.
The third school year marked by Covid restrictions will start the same way the previous one ended, following model B, with an additional requirement for the staff to be either vaccinated, recovered or tested weekly for Covid-19.
Apart from the mandatory Covid certificates for staff, model B entails in-person instruction for all children, mandatory masks and voluntary self-testing for older children, hand sanitising, distancing and extensive airing.
Provided health authorities' recommendations are heeded, all school programmes and activities will be allowed, including school camps and swimming classes, while pupils from different classes will be able to mix for elective subject classes.
However, under a decision taken by the Education Ministry last night and coming into effect today, inspectors will be able to decree classes to switch online for the schools that fail to follow the prescribed measures to prevent the spread of Covid-19.
The coronavirus outbreak this time around is much worse than a year ago with the number of infections increasing by an average of more than 400 a day so concerns are growing how school will proceed beyond the first week.
Facing extensive criticism over a lack of a clear roadmap and instructions, the government has announced new rules can be expected after 6 September depending on the state of the coronavirus outbreak.
But unofficial information indicates the Covid-19 advisory group drawing up a proposal of restrictions to be introduced in various stages of the epidemic does not plan school closures even if the situation deteriorated.
The Education Ministry has set out four different basic models for primary education depending on the epidemiological situation, with the extremes being A under which classes are held for everyone without restrictions, and D where classes are held remotely for all.
Model C envisages a combination of in-class and distance learning, which would kick in should the Covid outbreak worsen after 6 September. However, even under that model primary pupils up to 5th grade plus final year primary pupils would be kept in schools.
Teaching staff who have not been vaccinated or have not recently recovered from Covid-19 will need to undergo mandatory weekly testing, with the possibility of self-testing being introduced after 6 September give sufficient test supplies.
However, as some staff oppose vaccination and even testing, the Education Ministry has sent out a circular warning that unjustified refusal to get tested or wear a mask warrants a disciplinary procedure and as a last resort a dismissal from the job.
And a regulation that the government adopted last night stipulates that the Education Inspectorate will have the power to order schools to switch to remote learning in the event they not comply with Covid-19 restrictions.
The government said this constituted "a zero tolerance approach to schools' failure to create conditions for safe ... learning environments."
The problem of opposition to testing and vaccination was highlighted as the head teacher of the primary school in Prebold questioned coronavirus measures and even the existence of the virus, yet the school council has failed to dismiss him.
It is not clear how many teachers have been vaccinated, but their trade union, SVIZ, has called on Health Minister Janez Poklukar to provide the figures after he alleged the inoculation rate among teaching staff was low.
SVIZ supports Covid vaccination and self-testing, which has prompted some members to quit as an informal union is emerging round the anti-vaccination and anti-testing sentiment.
SVIZ could not get hold of the data on the vaccination rate among teaching staff but says secondary data from some local communities suggests "at least 55% to 60% of teachers are fully vaccinated", which compares to 43% of the total population.
With less than 10% of under 18s fully vaccinated, pupils in the last tree grades of primary schools and secondary students can pick up free antigen tests for voluntary weekly self-testing at pharmacies.
However, no one will check the results with Health Ministry State Secretary Robert Cugelj saying they will "play the card of trust". Also, children in mandatory education cannot be barred from classes if they do not wear masks, yet their parents will be informed of the requirement and cases of such pupils will be referred to school inspectors.
In the face of the many uncertainties surrounding the education process, all stakeholders pledge that their main concern is to keep schools open, especially in view of the impact remote classes have had on pupils' mental health and learning gaps.
The results of a national study into the impact of distance learning are expected to be released later this month.
Even if schools had to switch to distance learning, Arnes, the internet provider for public institutions, says it has upgraded its services and infrastructure so that the process will run smoothly.
Covid-related problems have stolen the limelight from the 21,123 six-to-seven-year-olds who will have their first day at school today. Their parents will be eligible for an extra day of paid leave on the occasion, but they will need a Covid certificate to accompany their kinds inside the school.
In all, school is starting today for more than 193,000 primary pupils and 76,000 secondary students.
To ensure their safety outside of school gates, local communities have teamed up with police, traffic safety promotion groups and insurance companies to come up with innovative ways to boost traffic safety.
Zebra crossings have been repainted and equipped with additional markings as the country's first 3D-zebra crossings have been unveiled in Velenje and drivers are being urged to look out for schoolchildren.