With just a few days to go until the start of the new school year, and with Poland experiencing record numbers of new coronavirus infections, uncertainty remains over how – and in some cases whether – schools will reopen.

The government insists that the vast majority of schools will be able to resume normal, in-person teaching for the first time since they were ordered to close their doors in March, and that appropriate sanitary measures are in place.

However, some experts, as well as the teachers’ union, are warning that schools are inadequately prepared, while many parents have complained about a lack of clear information. In a few places, authorities have already sought to delay the reopening.

Earlier this month, the education minister, Dariusz Piontkowski, announced that, instead of a standardised procedure, each school would be given autonomy to make their own decisions, in consultation with local sanitary authorities, regarding how they reopen.

The ministry said it expected am “overwhelming majority” of schools to reopen for return to normal face-to-face lessons. But, in infection hot spots, some institutions could choose to continue the with distance learning or introduce a hybrid model of remote and in-person classes.

Some local authorities have already announced that they will keep schools closed. The southern town of Zakopane – which is in a government “yellow zone” due to a high number of coronavirus cases – decided this week that children would not return to classrooms until 28 September.

‚ÄúBearing in mind the safety of children and teachers, we have decided to postpone the start of full-time classes,” announced Zakopane’s municipal authorities. “From 1 September, classes will be held remotely for almost the entire month.”

They said that the decision had been “widely consulted” with principals, teachers, doctors and parents, and was based on concerns that reopening schools so soon after the holidays could lead to a ‚Äúrapid increase in [infections], and thus the paralysis of the entire education system‚ÄĚ.

However, Zakopane has also face some criticism over its plans. The local sanitary inspectorate initially approved the decision but then changed its mind, according to the mayor. Barbara Nowak, the school superintendent for the province in which Zakopane is located, claimed the decision to close schools was unlawful.

‚ÄúThere was no information flow here; this is an arbitrary decision by the local authority,‚ÄĚ she told Onet, noting that schools can close only after obtaining permission from local authorities and the district sanitary inspectorate.

Similar situations have emerged in the Silesian cities of Sosnowiec and Rybnik, reports TVN24, where local sanitary inspectorates have not given consent for some schools to delay their reopenings.

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According to models published by researchers at the University of Warsaw, the reopening of schools could cause infection numbers to increase several times over. The subsequent outbreaks may even resemble the recent severe spread of the virus in Poland’s mines.

However, Piontkowski says that “concerns about new outbreaks in schools are not justified”. He told Polskie Radio yesterday that ‚Äúneither GIS [the sanitary inspectorate] nor the health ministry see any serious threat here. But just in case, we have adopted hygienic and sanitary rules.”

The minister also accused those who were raising concern about the reopenings of “wishing ill upon the current government, the whole of society, and all Poles”. He added that “virtually every country has decided to return to normal teaching”.

This morning, Piontkowski held a further press conference to outline the measures that are in place to ensure health and safety. His ministry has also published an online Q&A page to answer the most common concerns from teachers, parents and children.

The announcements follow criticism earlier this week from the president of the Polish Teachers’ Union (ZNP), SŇāawomir Broniarz, who says that the government has been “wasting time” instead of properly preparing for the 1 September reopening.

“A week before the start of the new school year, we should have procedures in place, but not on a voluntary basis and at the discretion of the headteacher,” said Broniarz. “There should be rules that will work in crisis situations, will be repeatable, automated.”

Some teachers have also complained of a lack of support from the central government. A number of schools say that teachers have resigned over concerns regarding the upcoming term, reports Gazeta Wyborcza, a newspaper critical of the government.

MirosŇāaw Sakowski, a headteacher in BolesŇāawiec, told TVN24 that the ministry had supplied his school with a hundred litres of hand sanitiser and one sanitiser machine, but that all other purchases came from the school’s own budget.

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Sakowski also expressed surprise at the government’s decision, announced yesterday, that children would not have to wear masks anywhere in schools.

“You go to a local shop, where there are three people, and you have to put on masks,” he noted. “Yet 400 students and 50 employees will come to my school and there is no such requirement.‚ÄĚ

Earlier this month, the Polish Academy of Sciences’ Covid-19 team recommended that masks be used in schools, reports Radio Zet. Some other countries – such as France, England and Scotland – have introduced various face-covering requirements for pupils.

Opinion polls suggest that a majority – or at least plurality – of Poles support the reopening of schools, though a significant minority are opposed.

In a survey by SW Research for Rzeczpospolita, 43% said they felt children should return to schools on 1 September, while 33% disagreed and 24% were unsure.

However, a further poll this week by United Surveys for RMF FM and Dziennik Gazeta Prawna found 68% saying that they would send their own children back to school on 1 September, while 27% would not and 4% were undecided.

Main image credit: Grzegorz Skowronek / Agencja Gazeta

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