As Belgium faces a rapid increase in new cases, schools across the country are reopening on Monday after the Christmas break, sparking fears that the virus will rampage through classrooms.
Despite nurseries and primary schools closing a week earlier than usual for the end-of-year holidays as a means of slowing the virus spread, infections are now spreading rapidly due to the Omicron variant, which is expected to have an impact on the continuation of in-person teaching.
“Although primary schools closed earlier for the holidays, the situation has since changed completely with the number of infections more than doubling in the wider community since last week,” Michaël Devoldere, Flemish education minister Ben Weyts’ spokesperson told The Brussels Times.
Federal Health Minister Frank Vandenbroucke already warned that the current Omicron infection wave could be “very disruptive for our society,” with schools also expected to be impacted.
“Large numbers of children go to school infected. The coronavirus will rage through the classrooms like wildfire. We can hardly stop that,” Guy Hans, medical director of the Antwerp University Hospital (UZ Antwerpen) told De Standaard.
New measures unlikely to save schools from major disruptions
In response to the rapid rise in infections and in anticipation of schools reopening, the government introduced more lenient rules which came into force on Monday.
Now, primary and nursery classes (teachers included) must go into quarantine as soon as four pupils (or 25% of the class) are infected. The quarantine period will be shortened from seven days to five. If a high-risk contact has taken place outside the classroom and a child’s household, the child is allowed to keep going to school.
For pupils in secondary schools, the same rules apply as to adults in wider society. Those who are fully vaccinated do not have to quarantine if they have a close contact with an infected classmate.
Yet Devoldere fears that despite these new measures, classes and schools will still have to close: “In primary education, this is expected to happen faster as they are more often smaller organisations. This means that if even a few teachers have to go into quarantine, this can quickly impact the whole school,” he said.
Impact on teachers
A rapid spread of infections is worrying from a health aspect, but the main concern is the impact this could have on teachers, according to Stefan Grielens, Managing Director of Free Centres for Student Guidance (CLB) Network.
“When teachers drop out, there is a lot of pressure on the management of the institution,” Grielens told VRT News, adding his concerns that the staff focus will turned towards infections and quarantines rather than the teaching itself.
“We were already facing teacher shortages in recent years, we were already pulling out all the stops, and you can only do so much in that case,” Devoldere said, stressing that it takes time to find appropriate candidates.
Keeping schools open
Whilst the Government is determined to keep schools open, Devoldere stressed that this decision is up to individual schools: “We are looking at local approaches rather than closing all schools just because some have to close.”
“If too many teachers are in isolation or quarantine, schools will probably have to close, but we are pleading with schools to remain open where possible.”
In the next two weeks, some 68,000 children will be vaccinated in Flanders. About three-quarters of all Flemish children aged 5 to 11 have already received a vaccination invitation; 1% has already been vaccinated. Vaccines are expected to be between 75% and 95% effective in children.
Devoldere warned that the child vaccination campaign will not be completed in time to stop the Omicron wave, but that most teachers have already received a booster dose, which will have a positive impact. He reiterated the importance of other measures in place to limit transmissions; namely CO2 meters and good ventilation.
“But, you also have to be realistic. The virus is already everywhere, this was already the case even before schools opened, so education will not be able to escape it either.”