The wearing of face masks will once again be mandatory for pupils in the fifth and sixth years of Dutch-speaking primary schools, starting from Monday 8 November.
In response to the rising number of infections in schools, the Flemish government on Wednesday evening announced its measures to control the worsening situation without having to extend the autumn holidays or close schools.
"It is undeniable that there has been a sharp increase in the number of infections in primary education. In the past two weeks, almost three-quarters of all infections in the education sector have been recorded in primary schools," a statement from Flemish education minister Ben Weyts read.
He added that face masks will be re-introduced in the 5th and 6th grades. "Provided the necessary distance and ventilation are provided and the pupils sit still, the masks may be removed indoors. Outside, the masks can be removed, provided the pupils avoid intense physical contact."
No changes have been announced for Dutch-speaking secondary schools, where face masks don't have to be worn, as due to the high vaccination rate among 12- to 17-year-olds in Flanders (84% are fully vaccinated), infections among students in this age group have remained relatively low.
However, the education partners asked that secondary schools remain vigilant. "Schools can still take extra measures themselves if the local situation indicates that this is appropriate."
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Earlier on Wednesday, the French-speaking education partners announced that, as of Monday 8 November, face masks would once again be mandatory in secondary schools when pupils are sitting, as is already the case in Brussels.
Meanwhile, in French-speaking nurseries and primary schools, children will not have to wear face masks, however, teachers will have to wear them at all times.
Relaxing quarantine rules
Earlier in the week, Katholiek Onderwijs Vlaanderen, the umbrella organisation for education in Flanders, argued for the quarantine rules in primary schools to be further relaxed, as it said the situation in primary education "is no longer tenable."
In the past two weeks alone, 28,000 pupils have been put at home, including many children with no symptoms. The concerns were heard by Weyts, who announced changes to the current quarantine strategy on Wednesday.
"From now on, only children (under 12) with symptoms will be tested in primary and nursery schools. This will reduce the pressure on primary care centres, doctors and Pupil Guidance Centres (CLB), and fewer children will needlessly be quarantined," Weyts said.
"We maintain a procedure to act against cluster outbreaks. Specifically, a class goes into quarantine for a week as soon as four infections are detected within a week," he added.
These rules will also enter into force after the autumn break on 8 November and could remain in force until the Christmas break, however, there will be an evaluation in the meantime.
Meanwhile, in higher education, where students are able to return to campus full-time, Weyts said the institutions themselves can take measures if necessary.