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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 ALERT

Covid-19: European summer holidays threatened by rise of subvariants

A resurgence of Covid-19 cases in Europe, this time driven by new, fast-spreading Omicron subvariants, is once again threatening to disrupt people's summer plans.

Covid-19: European summer holidays threatened by rise of subvariants

Several Western European nations have recently recorded their highest daily case numbers in months, due in part to Omicron sub-variants BA.4 and BA.5.

The increase in cases has spurred calls for increased vigilance across a continent that has relaxed most if not all coronavirus restrictions.

The first resurgence came in May in Portugal, where BA.5 propelled a wave that hit almost 30,000 cases a day at the beginning of June. That wave has since started to subside, however.

READ ALSO: KEY POINTS: German Health Ministry lays out autumn Covid plan

Italy recorded more than 62,700 cases on Tuesday, nearly doubling the number from the previous week, the health ministry said. 

Germany meanwhile reported more than 122,000 cases on Tuesday. 

France recorded over 95,000 cases on Tuesday, its highest daily number since late April, representing a 45-percent increase in just a week.

Austria this Wednesday recorded more than 10,000 for the first time since April.

READ ALSO: Italy’s transport mask rule extended to September as Covid rate rises

Cases have also surged in Britain, where there has been a seven-fold increase in Omicron reinfection, according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS).

The ONS blamed the rise on the BA.4 and BA.5 variants, but also said Covid fell to the sixth most common cause of death in May, accounting for 3.3 percent of all deaths in England and Wales.

BA.5 ‘taking over’

Mircea Sofonea, an epidemiologist at the University of Montpellier, said Covid’s European summer wave could be explained by two factors.

READ ALSO: 11,000 new cases: Will Austria reintroduce restrictions as infection numbers rise?

One is declining immunity, because “the protection conferred by an infection or a vaccine dose decreases in time,” he told AFP.

The other came down to the new subvariants BA.4 and particularly BA.5, which are spreading more quickly because they appear to be both more contagious and better able to escape immunity.

Olivier Schwartz, head of the virus and immunity unit at the Pasteur Institute in Paris, said BA.5 was “taking over” because it is 10 percent more contagious than BA.2.

“We are faced with a continuous evolution of the virus, which encounters people who already have antibodies — because they have been previously infected or vaccinated — and then must find a selective advantage to be able to sneak in,” he said.

READ ALSO: Tourists: What to do if you test positive for Covid in France

But are the new subvariants more severe?

“Based on limited data, there is no evidence of BA.4 and BA.5 being associated with increased infection severity compared to the circulating variants BA.1 and BA.2,” the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) said last week.

But rising cases can result in increasing hospitalisations and deaths, the ECDC warned.

Could masks be making a comeback over summer? (Photo by OSCAR DEL POZO / AFP)

Alain Fischer, who coordinates France’s pandemic vaccine strategy, warned that the country’s hospitalisations had begun to rise, which would likely lead to more intensive care admissions and eventually more deaths.

However, in Germany, virologist Klaus Stohr told the ZDF channel that “nothing dramatic will happen in the intensive care units in hospitals”.

Return of the mask? 

The ECDC called on European countries to “remain vigilant” by maintaining testing and surveillance systems.

“It is expected that additional booster doses will be needed for those groups most at risk of severe disease, in anticipation of future waves,” it added.

Faced with rising cases, last week Italy’s government chose to extend a requirement to wear medical grade FFP2 masks on public transport until September 30.

“I want to continue to recommend protecting yourself by getting a second booster shot,” said Italy’s Health Minister Roberto Speranza, who recently tested positive for Covid.

READ ALSO: Spain to offer fourth Covid-19 vaccine dose to ‘entire population’

Fischer said France had “clearly insufficient vaccination rates” and that a second booster shot was needed.

Germany’s government is waiting on expert advice on June 30 to decide whether to reimpose mandatory mask-wearing rules indoors.

The chairman of the World Medical Association, German doctor Frank Ulrich Montgomery, has recommended a “toolbox” against the Covid wave that includes mask-wearing, vaccination and limiting the number of contacts.

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