After months of uncertainty amid the coronavirus outbreak, schools across Turkey will partially reopen Monday, with kindergarten and first grade students returning to classrooms for the first time in more than six months.
Schools in Turkey were closed on March 16, less than a week after the country confirmed its first coronavirus case, and students had to complete the remainder of the academic year online.
On June 19, the 2019-2020 school year was officially declared over, and millions of students for the first time received their report cards online.
After months of consultations with the Health Ministry and other government agencies, the Education Ministry initially announced that schools would reopen on Aug. 31, with some private schools being allowed to start in-person teaching two weeks earlier.
But a resurgence in COVID-19 cases both in Turkey's high-population cities and rural towns forced the ministry's hand to postpone reopening to Sept. 21 on a reduced scale.
Now, only kindergarten and first grade students will be going back to classrooms for a few days each week, while other students will continue their education online.
Explaining the reasoning behind why only kindergartners and first graders were selected for face-to-face lessons, Education Minister Ziya Selçuk said the decision on first graders was made to help the children familiarize themselves with the concepts of education before thrusting them into the hectic nature of online education.
As for kindergartners, the reasoning was based on their young age as most of the education is done through activities instead of conventional teaching methods, making online platforms less efficient.
While not listed as one of the reasons by MInister Selçuk, the decision was welcomed by parents with young children as they needed the classrooms to open as well.
With students stuck home, parents who still have to go to work have found themselves in need of a relative or a caretaker to look after the children. Others lucky enough to work from home were not spared from inconvenience either, as parents soon found it hard to concentrate with energetic children cooped up all day at home, unable to burn unspent energy.
According to the ministry, both kindergartners and first graders will come only for a day in the first week of the new semester, which was designated as orientation week to introduce new students to schools.
Each school's administration will be allowed to decide the specific day the students will come in.
First graders will have five 30-minute classes with 10-minute breaks in between, while kindergartners will participate in activities in a similar time format. Teachers will be provided with a book that contains examples for 60 activities that were handpicked by the ministry to ensure the practice of social distancing between the students.
After the orientation week, students will be asked to come in for two days per week, while the number of classes or durations will remain the same.
For parents concerned about the safety of their children, attendance in the school won't be mandatory, according to the ministry.
And for the remainder of the days, first graders will follow their curriculum online. Kindergartners will have access to online education as well, in addition to several activities to carry out at home provided by their teachers.
The new "hybrid" education system was first mulled after experts voiced concerns about the ministry's initial plans to reopen schools for all students.
Professor Tevfik Özlü, a member of Turkey's Coronavirus Science Board, argued at the time that full-time education for all students would pose risks because of difficulties in ensuring compliance with mask and social distancing among younger students, as well as possible crowding scenarios in remote villages and rural towns.
While most provinces across the country have more than enough space to accommodate all students, Özlü said the hybrid system could help campuses lighten crowds at schools without leaving anyone behind.
While the new system covers kindergartners and first graders for the initial phase, the ministry said it could be expanded to cover other grades if the outbreak situation improves. It also could be removed if infection rates keep rising up, the ministry said.
Ahead of the reopening, Selçuk announced Saturday that all necessary preparations across schools were completed and campuses were ready to welcome students back.
"All disinfection procedures in schools across the country have been completed and all necessary hygiene products have been supplied to the campuses by provincial education directorates. The campuses were also provided with additional thermometers in case they need it," Selçuk said.
Explaining other measures at campuses, Selçuk said schools will distribute free masks to students for the first three weeks.
"We distributed all the required masks to our schools. We finalized the plans for school buses that will take our students to their campuses. We also provided training for bus drivers regarding the rules they have to follow," he said.
Selçuk added that the ministry has successfully launched a previously introduced software that keeps schools informed about the latest developments. The unnamed software aims to keep schools informed of any changes depending on the outbreak's course, also serving to educate staff on how to properly carry out any newly implemented plans.
Apart from the Education Ministry's precautions, the Health Ministry also ordered a long list of measures to be taken at schools.
According to the Health Ministry, Students will have their temperatures checked at the entrance, and they will only be allowed in one by one to avoid crowding.
Every person on campus will be required to wear a face mask and schools will provide students with one if they don't have any. Kindergarten and elementary school teachers will also have to wear a face shield. Masks will also be required on school buses.
Halls will have disinfectant dispensers mounted on walls. Visitors won't be allowed inside except for urgent situations. Staff will hold meetings via teleconference to avoid gathering in meeting rooms.
Classrooms will have students' desks spaced 1 meter (3.28 feet) apart, while the general occupancy of the school will be limited to one person per 4 square meters (43 square feet).
Cafeterias will have tables spread out and students will go there at different times. They will be required to disinfect their hands before and after entering. Food and beverages will be served in disposable plates and cups.
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