The government announced a set of new rules Thursday as Turkey fights the coronavirus pandemic with a strategy focusing on its vaccination program.
The new rules will concentrate on the resumption of in-person education next month. Teachers and staff at grade schools, academics and university students in higher learning will be asked to regularly undergo polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests if they are not vaccinated. Speaking after a Cabinet meeting, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said unvaccinated people would be required to undergo PCR tests at least twice a week after schools are opened on Sept. 6.
Erdoğan also announced mandatory tests for people attending mass events in theaters, cinemas and concert halls and for those taking intercity bus travel and flights. It was unclear whether these tests will be exclusive to the unvaccinated.
Turkey lifted most COVID-19-related restrictions on July 1, including curfews, after the number of cases significantly dropped following a strict lockdown. At the same time, it opened up its vaccination program to more people and currently all people aged 15 and above are eligible for jabs.
Although mandatory masks and social distancing rules remain in place, the country has seen a surge in the number of daily cases recently, which is tied to higher mobility after the end of restrictions, and experts say there is a false perception of “safety” among people who ditch masks after the start of “normalization process.”
Authorities repeatedly said they did not reconsider reimposing restrictions but expressed determination to reach out to more people in the vaccination program. So far, more than 87.2 million doses have been administered, with 34.4 million people receiving both doses of Sinovac or Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines. Still, vaccine hesitancy prevailing in the public is blamed for the existence of some 18 million people who did not get their jabs.
Vaccination is important for the resumption of daily life but for experts and authorities, it is seen to be most vital for in-person education. Turkey pursued a remote, online education model for most of 2020 at the height of the pandemic and occasionally switched to a hybrid model, involving both in-person and online classes. Though education was not disrupted, experts say remote education alone is not sustainable, and children need to attend classes physically for a better grasp of courses.
National Education Minister Mahmut Özer said in a statement late Thursday that schools would always remain open “unless health conditions require us to keep them closed.” Özer also said that, unlike last year when school hours were shortened, schools would operate just as they did before the pandemic. “At this point, it is obvious that COVID-19 will be with us for a while. So, we have to continue our lives by considering the risks it poses and taking the necessary measures,” he said. He added that they could not “afford to keep schools closed more.”
“We have to resume in-person education for children’s development and the future,” he said.
Özer said children “with excuses” will be spared from attending in-person classes and they could have access to education through online platforms that were implemented for all students last year.
The minister assured the public that measures to prevent infections among students and teachers were being taken and said that they set up an electronic surveillance system for all schools in the country to track down any risk of COVID-19 clusters. “Our primary measure is the vaccination of education staff. So far, 80.3% of staff have had at least one dose of vaccine and 69.7% had their two doses,” he said. Özer said the vaccination was not mandatory for teachers and other staff but masks will be required to be worn at all times both by students and staff at schools. He said the number of people allowed into school premises would also be limited, schools would be disinfected every day, and all enclosed spaces would have proper ventilation.
Though teachers are required to have their vaccinations if they want to skip mandatory tests, experts warn that parents should also get vaccinated for a safer in-person education. Professor Mustafa Necmi Ilhan, an adviser to the Health Ministry on pandemic control, says parents should have two doses of vaccines "to protect their children, children of others and, overall, the society." Ilhan said the success in controlling the pandemic could only be achieved when the majority of people are vaccinated, ideally before autumn. It is estimated that the pandemic may worsen in that season as more people spend time indoors, providing a fertile ground for infections.
Ilhan told Anadolu Agency (AA) that the number of daily cases was not fluctuating in Turkey much and this is mostly due to mass vaccination. "Without a 55% rate of people with two doses, we would have far higher numbers," he said.