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COVID-19 ALERT

What Covid-19 rules will be in place in Austrian schools?

After their long summer vacations, kids in Austria are almost ready to start their new school year. Will there be any Covid-19 restrictions?

What Covid-19 rules will be in place in Austrian schools?
Students go back to Austrian schools in September, but will the Covid-19 restrictions return? (Photo by Vincenzo PINTO / AFP)

Children and young students in Austria have been arguably one of the most affected groups during the Covid-19 pandemic, having been forced to study at home, wear masks in class and take mandatory PCR tests.

With the school year about to start in the country in September (September 5th in eastern Austria and on September 12th in the rest of the country), the federal government is yet to announce which specific measures, if any, will be in place for students.

READ ALSO: When do children go back to school in Austria?

The Ministry of Education says that there will be an “overall variant plan”, meaning that measures are likely to be put in place in case new coronavirus variants emerge that are deemed more dangerous. Still, the actual plan is “currently being prepared by the Ministry of Health with the involvement of all departments”.

The goal is to keep school rules the same as the ones that would apply in other public areas. The ministry said that the official plan with all the measures to be in force at the beginning of the school year should be announced next week.

No PCR tests on September 5th

It’s unlikely, though, that kids will be required to show negative PCR tests to go to school. At least those in the eastern states start classes in only two weeks. This is because large test laboratories such as Lead Horizon in Vienna won’t have time to prepare for mass testing, according to Austrian media reports.

It would still be possible for school children to take antigen tests before going back to classes, but there is currently no indication that this would be required of them.

READ ALSO: LATEST: The Covid rules across Austria from August 2022

Even in Western states, such as Salzburg, authorities have been against asking kids to test themselves before returning to school.

“If we don’t have to test anywhere, if we can, for example, go to an inn, to the Kirtag or the cinema, or even if one is allowed to go to work, then it is incomprehensible why we would start testing again only in the schools.” Salzburg’s Secretary for Education Daniela Gutschi (ÖVP) told broadcaster ORF.

What about face masks?

With masks, things get a bit more complicated. When he announced the government would drop the mask mandate in the country from June 1st, Health Minister Johannes Rauch (Greens) said Austria would “pause” the regulation.

He has been clear that it was likely that a mask mandate would be back in place by autumn, especially if coronavirus cases rose in the country.

Currently, people only need to wear masks inside health care establishments, such as hospitals and nursing homes, and on Viennese public transport. And, of course, if the person has tested positive for Covid-19.

READ ALSO: Austria to ‘pause’ Covid mask mandate from June 1st

Education Minister Martin Polaschek (ÖVP) had stated in early August that “if it is the case that masks have to be worn in public life, then the school sector will also join accordingly”. However, since there has been no indication that Austria will bring back a mask mandate in September, it’s not likely that Monday’s announcement will have it either.

What is more likely is that schools could take targeted measures. For example, imposing a mask mandate when there is a positive Covid-19 case in a specific class, as experts have mentioned.

How likely is it that schools will close?

This is perhaps the one thing that all parties and experts agree on: school closures like those that happened early in the pandemic are the absolute last resort.

Polaschek has already been clear, as has Rauch, that keeping schools open is the “highest priority”.

“School closures are the very, very last option. The Minister of Health has said quite clearly: that keeping schools open has a top priority. I see it the same way. I do not assume that we will close schools”, the education minister said.

Useful vocabulary

Masken – masks
Schulstart – school start
Schulschließungen – school closures
Bildungsminister – Education Minister
Gesundheitsminister – Health Minister

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COVID-19 STATS

Could Austria be spared another wave of Covid this winter?

Specialists in Austria - and worldwide - can't agree if the Covid-19 pandemic is nearing its end, and many remain cautious. Here's what you need to know.

Could Austria be spared another wave of Covid this winter?

The World Health Organisation’s head Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus recently said that the pandemic was not over yet, but that “the end is in sight”. Similarly, US President Joe Biden stated: “The pandemic is over, but we still have a problem with Covid.”

In Austria, experts are cautiously optimistic. Dorothee von Laer, a virologist at the Medical University of Innsbruck, said: “A pandemic is over when a high level of immunity has built up in the population, and that is probably the case everywhere in the world except in China”, Austrian daily newspaper Der Standard reported.

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: How to get the new adapted Covid-19 vaccine in Austria

Herwig Kollaritsch, infectologist and member of Austria’s national vaccination panel (NIG), has a similar view. “We are increasingly getting into a somewhat better situation because the immunity level in the population is rising due to many vaccinations and infections.”

Though he is more cautious: “We have always had problems due to a change of variants, and even now, we are absolutely not safe from surprises”.

New variants

The biggest fear ahead of winter is precisely that: a change of variants, specialists say. Especially since more and more omicron mutations are being found and they can circumvent the immune defences quite well, Ulrich Elling, a molecular biologist at the Austrian Academy of Sciences, told Der Standard.

However, since all the current mutations are still omicron variants, the severe courses of the disease continue to be rare.

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

“We still use hospitalisation and death rates as parameters. So when it comes to that, we are out of the woods. But still, a lot of people will get sick – not very seriously, but they will get sick,” Kollaritsch said.

Elling agrees: “Of course, statements about the supposed end of the pandemic are striking a chord with people at the moment. We all want it to be over. Nevertheless, the numbers will rise again. Above all, the new variants escape our immune response more than any other variant before.”

For him, it’s wrong to say that the pandemic is over or that there won’t be a new infection wave in winter. Even though they may be of milder courses of the disease, the virus is still out there and will infect people in the coming months, he believes.

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

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