Covid detection and school opening

The conflicting messages in early summer issued by Maltese holders of political office that Covid-19 was under control are partly responsible for the current state of play. Specifically, the Prime Minister and the Minister for Tourism are on record as having publicly stated that matters were under control and that we could now “enjoy summer”.

It is this irresponsible attitude that led to the fast track relaxation of Covid-19 restrictions when a more common-sense approach would have indicated a much slower pace.

One does understand that the economic operators feeling the pinch were lobbying continuously the Tourism authorities. However, when government gave way, it sent the worst possible message: that the restrictions were not required. When the Prime Minister announced an amnesty relative to  fines imposed, he made matters worse.

This is the current state of play: at the end of summer the rate of Covid-19 infections is unfortunately the highest ever in the Maltese islands. The 106 cases identified on Wednesday is a red light warning us that controls in place are not adequate. They need to be tightened up and enforced.

As a result of the Covid-19 restrictions the economy has contracted. The government subsidies and handouts helped substantially to reduce the negative impacts.

The road back to “some version of normal” will be slow and painful. It will definitely take a considerable time, depending on the sector under consideration. It requires caution, patience and a sense of responsibility.

The current Covid-19 agenda is considering whether and when it will be possible to re-open our educational institutions.  This is primarily in the interests of our students as well as of parents whose painfully constructed work/life balance has been destabilised. It is also in the interest of protecting everyone’s health: that of students, teachers, as well as those responsible for the administration of the educational institutions.

There are a multitude of valid arguments as to why all educational institutions should re-open the soonest even though the state authorities were very late in issuing the behaviour protocols, further fuelling unnecessary uncertainty.

It is first and foremost in the interest of most students, young and old, that formal education gets going the soonest. Online learning, while being useful and having many merits, is no substitute for direct face to face contact between student and teacher, especially in the initial stages of education.

In the case of vulnerable students direct contact with the educator is essential. These are the Covid-19 education victims: their future, already in the fringes, has been severely damaged. There is a real risk of the system losing track of them completely thereby impairing severely their future.

Opening schools is also in the interest of working parents. Their active involvement at their place of work is being hampered as long as schools remain closed. Where can they leave their children? Grandparents are out of the question as they are vulnerable too!  Single parents are definitely worse off with closed schools as even their very livelihood is put into question. 

Telework is not necessarily always a solution, even though it is helpful.

The explosive increase in the number of detected Covid-19 cases during this week does not help matters. Coupled with the late availability of the school behavioural protocols this is creating considerable doubt in all stakeholders as to whether the authorities can handle the return back to school.

It may be reasonable to explore whether instead of an across the board return to school, a staggered approach can be implemented with the vulnerable and the dependent students being given priority. This could be the only realistic way forward.

published in The Malta Independent on Sunday : 20 September 2020

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