Contrary to what politicians hoped at the start of the summer holidays, the GEMS expert group is advising the government to still require face masks in schools due to the current evolution of the coronavirus figures.
The mask obligation will be less strict than last school year, allowing pupils to take them off during a test (when everyone is quiet) or when they keep their distance and there is sufficient ventilation, for example, report several Flemish media.
“Especially in September, the face masks will still be needed,” GEMS member and biostatistician Geert Molenberghs (UHasselt/KU Leuven) told Het Nieuwsblad.
“That is a difficult period with children who have been travelling and can bring in the virus from anywhere,” he said. “With a mild measure like a face mask, we can get through that period.”
A few weeks ago, it seemed as if Flemish Education Minister Ben Weyts would succeed in his aim to start the new year in September without extra measures, but Molenberghs points to a number of evolutions “that we cannot ignore.”
“The positivity ratio among children aged between 0 and 9 years old is around 5%, while among the average population it is around 3%,” he said. “That is a concern.”
While teachers will be protected with two vaccine doses, the experts want to avoid primary schools, with children under 12 who are not vaccinated, becoming hotbeds for the coronavirus.
“From there, the virus could spread again among the older population,” Molenberghs said, adding that the number of hospital admissions has tripled in one month.
“That’s a dynamic we don’t like to see,” he added.
Additionally, the experts also worked out new “alarm levels” in their advice, corresponding to different measures.
According to the current coronavirus figures, Belgium is in alarm level 2, which means face masks and a weekly screening of pupils and teachers in secondary schools.
At the next Consultative Committee, which is expected to happen towards the end of August, it will be up to the government to make the final decision on how education will start on 1 September.