EDITORIAL: Schools need COVID-19 options

The Ministry of Education this week faced a backlash from parents over its new relaxed guidelines for suspending in-person classes when a COVID-19 case is confirmed. On Tuesday, it announced revised suspension criteria to meet the nation’s new strategy of risk mitigation, but some parents have questioned the reasoning behind the easing of measures while the nation is reporting record high numbers of daily COVID-19 cases.

In February 2020, the ministry asked schools to suspend in-person attendance for 14 days for classes in which a student or faculty member was confirmed to have COVID-19, and suspend all classes at a school if a second case was confirmed. As the Omicron variant of SARS-CoV-2 began spreading rapidly in Taiwan, especially after the four-day Tomb Sweeping Day weekend earlier this month, in-person classes at more than 200 schools were suspended, sparking concerns about students’ right to education .

Under the ministry’s revised criteria, at senior-high school level or below, if a student is confirmed to have COVID-19, their entire class would be considered “close contacts” and placed in home isolation, while the class would be suspended for 10 days until they all test negative. People who had direct contact with an infected person would be suspended from in-person classes for one to three days, and the school could be temporarily closed if more than 10 classes are suspended or one-third or more of its students are missing for 10 days.

Parents quickly voiced their dissatisfaction, with some saying the rules should be tightened, especially for children younger than 12 who have not yet been vaccinated. While more than half of all city and county governments have agreed to follow the new guidelines, some have sought to make the rules more flexible depending on each school’s situation, while others have adopted the changes only for students older than 12.

The ministry had told schools to discuss proposed changes with its response task force before implementing them, but on Wednesday said it would respect local governments and schools that choose to adjust the policy.

As of Friday, in-person classes have been partially or totally suspended at 412 schools in 18 cities and counties, while several with confirmed cases have said they would suspend all classes for a few days to test remote learning.

The various policies adopted by schools have left some parents even more anxious and confused, while some school administrators and parents are relieved that they do not have to deal with school closures or taking days off to stay at home with their children.

As parents have different levels of risk tolerance and childcare needs, the revised criteria sould be tweaked to provide more flexibility for schools, but the ministry should provide supplementary measures based on detailed assessments so that schools, parents and students can have a range of choices, based on their needs and comfort levels. The government should also soon meet with experts to determine the safety and effectiveness of COVID-19 vaccines in children aged five to 11.

It needs to provide a step-by-step guide to help school administrators respond to COVID-19 infections, including how to immediately identify close contacts in all settings, including in classes and at school events, and how to appropriately appraise parents of the situation . Free and regular COVID-19 testing at schools should be considered, so that schools can quickly detect infections and take preventive measures, as some Omicron cases are asymptomatic.

The government should encourage schools to assess whether in-person courses are necessary and gauge the effectiveness of remote learning, especially for students with special needs, while finding ways to accommodate those who lack Internet access.

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