Belgium’s education ministers are also calling for the relaxation of the quarantine rules for pupils and teachers so only infected people will have to stay home as schools are succumbing to a rapid rise in cases.
The number of infections among school-aged children has doubled in the last week, and despite the country already slightly relaxing quarantine rules in schools two weeks ago, the situation is becoming untenable, resulting in healthy children being quarantined, sometimes for weeks on end.
“The field of education supports the demand to thoroughly adjust the quarantine rules for schools so that only those who are infected have to stay at home,” a press release from Flemish Education Minister Ben Weyts stated, meaning the rule that a class automatically closes after four infections will be abolished.
On Wednesday last week, the Flemish Centre for Pupil Guidance (CLB) called for a simplified policy that would mean pupils can still attend school if they are not symptomatic or did not test positive.
On Sunday, Weyts already wrote to the head of the Interministerial Conference (ICM) on Public Health, Christie Morreale, calling for a meeting with all competent ministers to discuss the relaxation of rules.
Caroline Désir and Bénédicte Linard, the Education and Children’s Ministers for the Wallonia-Brussels Federation, backed the call for this meeting, according to reports from Le Soir. On Wednesday morning, the ICM is expected to make a decision.
Proposed alternatives to quarantines and closures
Federal Health Minister Frank Vandenbroucke on Monday also proposed to temporarily allow children who had a high-risk contract at home but tested negative for the coronavirus, to go to school due to the high number of school and class closures, but stressed that this relaxation would not be extended to other activities.
“Children who are infected – symptomatic or not – should still stay at home to protect pupils and teachers as much as possible from infection,” he said.
Virologist Steven Van Gucht also stressed the importance of ensuring that children are only being sent home if it is really necessary and proposed self-tests as an alternative to prevent the closures of schools or classes.
He added that these are the only viable alternative to quarantines and closures, but it will also take a lot of energy. The matter of whether these tests will be provided free of charge also sparked political debate earlier this month.
The education ministers are also considering a design of the coronavirus barometer to be tailored to the sector, as it does not fall under the federal system. The draft proposed by Weyts includes the same three levels (yellow-orange-red), with a basic package of measures, such as ventilation and social distancing, for each level.
A similar system was used in 2020, but with different colour codes. The new proposal is expected to be discussed at a future meeting.
“With a new barometer, we mainly want to bring more simplicity to the rules, which is important for principals and teachers. This will hopefully bring a little more stability and predictability, even though the virus itself will always remain unpredictable,” Weyts said.
Additionally, the education minister alongside the sector’s partners decided that sick teachers will now only need one doctor’s note to legitimise their absence, at the request of the general practitioners, who are currently overburdened.
This decision means the previously needed additional certificate, which needed to be completed by a doctor, will not be abolished.