After more than a year, Turkey relaunched in-person education on Monday. Some 18 million students and more than a million teachers returned to schools as the country decided to end online education for the new school year. Students and teachers cheered the first day of school, hailing a reunion long delayed due to the coronavirus pandemic. Though mandatory protective masks hid the smiles.
Resuming in-person education was a tough decision for authorities, especially since the pandemic is still raging in the country, with the fast-spreading delta variant accounting for the majority of cases. But education experts say postponing returning to school may cause a bigger social problem, with students deprived of face-to-face education that boosts their learning abilities. The country is relying on its vaccination program to achieve mass immunity and stave off the fallout of infections.
Instead of a hybrid model of online and in-person education, which was implemented last year briefly, schools will be open for five days a week, just like before the pandemic. Classes will be 40 minutes long at most and breaks between them will be subject to several restrictions.
The Ministry of National Education had assured students, parents and teachers that all measures were in place for in-person classes, from mandatory masks to sanitizers and rules on social distancing. Teachers and other staff at schools are required to either get vaccinated or routinely present their negative polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test results.
Last week, first graders started their first school year with a three-day orientation. Some 2.3 million students attended the orientation classes, which also served as a trial run for in-person education amid the pandemic. No major clusters of infections have been reported so far. The government set up a digital tracking system of hundreds of schools across the country for up-to-date monitoring of any cases. The Health Ministry will track all potential cases and those who have come into contact with said cases reported at schools, as well as in the families of students, via the system. Schools are supplied with free masks for all students and parents are not allowed to enter the school premises. In the event of infections, quarantine procedures will be applied. Infected people without symptoms will not be treated as “cases.”
“I am happy that schools are opened. Face-to-face education is better for students,” Murat Ay, an eighth-grader attending a school in the northern province of Samsun, told Ihlas News Agency (IHA) on the first day. “We could not understand lessons much in online education. It was not efficient,” he said. Ay said he was complying with rules while at school.
Umut Topkara, another eighth-grader, felt a little differently. “I think it is both good and bad that schools are reopened. The pandemic still continues but I also missed my school, my friends. I still prefer remote education.”
“I have two children, a first grader and a second grader. It was very difficult for us last year, especially for my older son to learn how to read and write. We hope same won’t happen this year for my daughter,” Gülsüm Türüdü, a mother, told Demirören News Agency (DHA) as she dropped her children off to a school in Istanbul’s Zeytinburnu district. “I warned them to be cautious and stay away from any crowd,” she added. Ayşe Taşkın, who dropped her grandson off at the same school, said it was challenging for children to stay at home. “They can’t learn everything in online education. It is up to their families to boost their learning but it is difficult. In-person education is better,” she said. “I packed wet tissues, extra masks, sanitizers in his schoolbag and told him to keep their hands clean,” she said about the personal measures her grandson will take.
President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said Monday that they were resolute in continuing in-person education. Addressing students at an event at a high school in Istanbul, Erdoğan sought to assure students and their parents, adding measures were in place. “The number of total doses administered approach 100 million. Every citizen is entitled to free vaccines and they have easy, swift access to them. We have made important progress at a time when many countries had encountered significant challenges in terms of mass vaccination,” Erdoğan said. The president noted that the Ministry of National Education’s digital infrastructure closely tracks all processes regarding the pandemic.
Erdoğan called upon all citizens, particularly teachers and parents of students to get their vaccines. “We do not want to resort to enforcing the inoculation at all but the vaccine is our most effective, protective tool against the pandemic. I call upon our citizens not to heed the disinformation spreading especially on social media (about vaccines). We have to act in line with the mindset that we cannot afford depriving our children of the schools they missed so much,” he said.