When they step into the schoolyards on Wednesday, first graders will be the first to return to school in an educational landscape reshaped by the coronavirus pandemic in Turkey. Along with preschoolers, they will be the first students of a “new normal” for in-person education. It is unclear whether the schools will be closed again in case of a surge in COVID-19 cases, but their first day at school will be one with mandatory masks, social distancing and probably clumsy first encounters with classmates that will be devoid of any physical touch.
The new school year will begin for all grades next week, but first graders and preschoolers are required to attend an orientation program to endear them to the school for the next three days. Only this time, the orientation program will also impart guidance on how to keep their distance from others and how to follow hygiene rules, something that may not be achieved in three days.
Addressing teachers and education staff on Tuesday during an online conference, Minister of National Education Mahmut Özer said that education was one of the basic needs of children. He said that they made “all preparations” for in-person education and emphasized that it is not “something that cannot be postponed any longer.”
“Whatever important progress we made in digital education, it cannot be compared to the value of teaching your class to students you look in the eye in a classroom,” Özer said. “Under the difficult circumstances we face, we have to double the caution and double our responsibility until we return to the normalcy (before the pandemic)."
In-person education will resume without any limits, unlike last school year when school hours and days were reduced. Students will be able to attend school five days a week. The government had shut down schools and fully switched to remote education after pursuing a mixed education model up until last November. The switch had stemmed from a new wave of coronavirus cases. Nowadays, the country faces a new surge in daily cases, after it had managed to reduce the numbers with a strict COVID-19 lockdown. Though it is not as bad as last year, daily cases are fluctuating around 17,000 and 19,000 daily.
President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan had announced on Aug. 19 that they would resume in-person education on September 6. He said that teachers and other staff at schools who have not received both doses of the COVID-19 vaccine would have to have routine polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests at least twice a week.
The return to in-person education covers about 18 million students and more than 1 million staff. The government has issued a set of guidelines for safe in-person education to prevent infections. Among them are hygiene rules, mandatory masks at all times for students and teachers and proper ventilation of classrooms. Measures also include scaled-down physical activities for children.
The government also recommended vaccination for parents of students, though it won’t be mandatory and, unlike teachers, parents will not be asked to present PCR tests every week.
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