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COVID-19

Austria to keep schools open in lockdown but asks children to stay home

Schools will remain open during Austria's national lockdown, but authorities have advised children to stay at home where possible. Here are the latest rules.

Austria to keep schools open in lockdown but asks children to stay home
Photo by FREDERICK FLORIN / AFP

Following Austria’s announcement that the country would go into its fourth national lockdown from Monday, parents were left irritated over conflicting statements on schools.

Most public life will shut down from next week, but after some uncertainty, the education minister Heinz Faßmann eventually confirmed on Friday that schools will stay open.

The minister described the move as “decongesting” the class system in a press conference, and that only “those who need it” should come in-person to school. This may include young children of parents working essential jobs or those with extra learning needs, for example.

READ ALSO: ‘Unavoidable’: How Austria has reacted to the new nationwide lockdown

Therefore, face-to-face teaching will continue in class from Monday – even if attendance isn’t compulsory – and there will be no nationwide distance learning.

Austrian Chancellor Alexander Schallenberg added that the question of schooling was “one of the most difficult issues in the lockdown”, and that it was a “challenge for families”.

Meanwhile, Faßmann promoted a “fundamentally open school,” because “encounters, acquaintances, friendships” are of enormous importance for children.

However, parents who want or need to keep their children at home can do so without the need of a doctor’s certificate, he added.

Authorities began vaccinating children between five and 11 against coronavirus in Austria’s capital this week among soaring Covid rates.Photo by JOE KLAMAR / AFP

Although the decision ultimately remains with parents in this case, the education official insisted that this was not a shift of responsibility, but rather a sign of respect for the parents’ judgement.

It’s up to parents to consider the infection rate of where they live and their child’s learning style. In view of the “general nervousness” that Austria is currently experiencing, he said, “for some, the home environment is perhaps better than the school environment”.

“The essential thing is: the school is open, it not only provides supervision, but also teaching,” added the Minister.

READ ALSO: 

The measures to be applied in schools from Monday

According to the new decree effective from November 22nd, school timetables will stay in place and for children who stay at home, lessons should be “simulated”, Faßmann said.

Just as those who attend class in person, children learning from home should start their first lesson on Monday morning. This can either be done live, he explained, if technology allows or learning can be done “asynchronously”, i.e. later in their own time.

Children can use “learning packages” or learning platforms where teachers send the educational resources, for instance.

Teachers, however, should not be faced with the challenge of hybrid teaching, Faßmann emphasised. That means school staff shouldn’t have to simultaneously teach in class and “sit behind the screen” to check what the students are doing at home.

If students have technical difficulties, however, there is no obligation to connect to online classes.

Any absences from in-school learning must be made on a daily basis and not by the hour, which means that you can’t dip in and out of one single school day.

Testing will also be in place for both vaccinated and unvaccinated pupils. Those who come to school must be tested three times a week, including one PCR test, as has previously been the case. An exception is made for those who have recovered from Covid infection within the last 180 days.

Students walk past a vaccination center against the coronavirus (Covid-19) set up at a vocational school in Vienna. Photo by ALEX HALADA / AFP

If a student records a positive test, all other children must have at least one antigen test every day for five days, according to the rules of the Ministry of Health.

As far as schoolwork and tests are concerned, there is a basic rule that they should not take place during lockdown. However, if practically all pupils are present or if a test can’t be postponed, tests can go ahead.

Covid-19 in Austria: Follow the latest developments as they happen

Finally, masks continue to be compulsory in all schools throughout the entire building and during lessons, but mask breaks must also be scheduled.

Reactions to the rules

The last-minute decision ahead of Austria’s nationwide lockdown has been met with criticism from some political corners and children’s rights groups.

The right-wing FPÖ education spokesperson Hermann Brückl accused Faßmann of undermining compulsory education with his “wishy-washy solution”, in a written statement.

He claimed the education minister “has simply not done his homework,” citing that, “he has not equipped Austria’s schools with air purifiers and partition walls, which would have made it possible to hold proper, stress-free and safe classes for pupils and teachers in this situation.”

Children’s rights campaigners, ‘Kinderfreunde’, on the other hand, expressed their “anger at the government’s ignoring of the rights of young people,” in a statement.

“Once again 1.5 million children and young people have to pay the price for this political failure”, said the group’s federal chairperson and Vienna city councillor, Jürgen Czernohorszky.

Austria will go into a three-week lockdown from next week, which will end on December 12th, with the government blaming the country’s large unvaccinated population.

READ MORE: What we know about Austria’s plan for compulsory Covid vaccination

Calls for lockdown in the highest-incidence regions or across the whole country have increased over the past week, partly due to criticisms of the partial lockdown as divisive and difficult to enforce, and also due to the strain Austrian hospitals are under.

Authorities will also introduce a mandatory vaccination framework, with everyone in the country required to get a jab. The mandate will come in from February 1st, 2022 at the latest, the government announced on Friday. 

Austria is the first EU country to reimpose a full lockdown.

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COVID-19 STATS

UPDATED: Will Austria bring back face mask mandate to battle rising Covid cases?

As the number of Covid-19 infections and related hospitalisations rises in Austria, many are asking for new measures to be adopted, especially a mask mandate.

UPDATED: Will Austria bring back face mask mandate to battle rising Covid cases?

Austria has seen an increase in the number of Covid-19 cases and hospitalisations in recent weeks, with 2,428 people currently hospitalised with the disease, including 118 in intensive care (ICU).

One month ago, just 871 people were being treated in hospital with an additional 47 people in ICU.

The Austrian Federal Government has now said they will make a decision on bringing back the mask mandate by October 23rd. Last week, the National Covid Crisis Coordination (GECKO) recommended wearing FFP2 masks.

According to ORF, the mask mandate could return for public indoor spaces, public transport and in the gastronomy sector. The Austrian Trade Association has already rejected the suggestion saying it would be the “last straw” for employees as the industry struggles with staff shortages.

What are the Covid-19 experts predicting for the autumn and winter season?

The latest report from the Covid prognosis consortium in Austria predicts a rise in hospitalisations in October. 

In a “worst case” scenario, as many as 3,428 people who tested positive would need a hospital bed on October 19th, the latest forecast said. A “further significant increase in hospitalisation is to be expected, with the Covid population in the ICU area remaining almost unchanged”, the experts summarised.

READ ALSO: Reader question: When should I get a fourth dose of the Covid-19 vaccine in Austria?

In comparison, last autumn, the country was on an Austria-wide lockdown and on November 28th, there were 2,767 infected persons hospitalised.

However, the experts said there is a very high proportion of incidental findings among hospitalised patients. Only around 22 percent of those presently hospitalised were admitted with Covid-19 symptoms. In the intensive care unit, this proportion was only 12 percent – most people go to the hospital for other reasons and find they test positive for the coronavirus.

Calls for pandemic-containment measures

Still, the consortium warned about staff shortages in hospitals. “The increased infection pressure is currently also translating into above-average unplanned staff absences”, it wrote.

READ ALSO: From inflation to Covid: What to expect from Austria’s winter season

In view of the situation in the hospitals, experts are calling for the reintroduction of mandatory masks.

Virologist Dorothee von Laer from the Medical University of Innsbruck criticised the government, saying authorities were once again “too late” to take measures.

“We are now at the last push to reintroduce compulsory masks indoors so that the omicron wave from spring is not repeated,” the virologist told Kurier.

“How much longer to watch Covid go through the roof? Winter is still long, and hospitals are getting crowded with decreasing staff and increasing occupancy. Mask up! #CovidIsntOver,” Thomas Czypionka, Head of IHS Health Economics and Health Policy of the Institute for Advanced Studies (IHS), said on Twitter.

Currently, people in Austria only need to wear masks in the health sector area, such as in hospitals and elderly care homes. However, the capital Vienna has stricter rules, imposing a mask mandate on public transport.

Only in a ‘state of emergency’

Speaking to public broadcaster ORF, Health Minister Johannes Rauch (Greens) ruled out the immediate introduction of a mask mandate.

He said stricter rules would only be imposed if the situation in hospitals “escalates, becomes threatening, and a state of emergency occurs”.

READ ALSO: LATEST: The Covid rules across Austria

At the same time, he reiterated that the pandemic is not over and that when the government removed the mask mandate, it also announced the rules could be brought back in autumn.

“When the mask requirement was abolished in grocery stores and public transport in the spring, I already said: If it should become necessary again in the autumn, the general mask requirement will be reintroduced there”, he said.

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