Covid-19: Bulgaria Education Minister outlines plans for new school year

Bulgaria’s Education Minister Krassimir Vulchev said on August 27 that the 2020/21 school year is set to begin with pupils back in classrooms, but with protocols in place to limit the risks of coronavirus infections and increased preparedness to switch to distance learning alternatives.

Vulchev said that the plans were not final and changes in the Covid-19 situation could prompt the ministry to amend its approach. The school year in Bulgaria is set to start on its traditional date, September 15.

“We can forecast with a large degree of probability that the epidemic situation will continue for 10-12 months and will cover the entire school year. We have to find a way for the education system to work,” Vulchev told reporters.

To that end, the ministry has opted for the approach that will see pupils in classrooms, but turning to various forms of distance learning if necessary.

“The schools will be prepared for making the switch. We will likely have to use it when the flu epidemics begin,” Vulchev said, referring to the influenza outbreaks that are usual in the latter part of the calendar year and frequent in the early part of the new year.

The alternative strategy of using some form of hybrid education, which would combine online courses with traditional classroom teaching, was considered and rejected because of difficulties in implementing it uniformly throughout the country.

Vulchev acknowledged the added healthcare challenge in the upcoming school year, but said that full-on distance learning had its own considerable drawbacks.

“If we leave schools closed, we risk having more negative effects on children than those caused by the coronavirus pandemic. There is talk of a generational crisis,” he said, referring to the warning by UN secretary-general Antonio Guterres earlier this month about the pandemic’s effect on education .

“There is no solution with upsides only. We hope that parents will choose classroom teaching and most of them have. Our survey shows that 16 per cent of parents have opted for distance learning, but that is not a principle choice, rather one prompted by the continued pandemic,” Vulchev said.

The ministry’s guidelines for the new school year, published on its website (in Bulgarian here), include general mandatory measures and a list of recommendations that individual schools can apply if they are able to, Vulchev said. The latter list is subject to changes as schools find new working solutions to dealing with individual issues.

Given the physical constraints of classroom sizes, it was impossible to impose social distancing uniformly, so the ministry’s focus was on limiting contact between pupils in same-age classes. If that was not possible, schools were instructed to limit interaction between age groups.

Mandatory measures included observing general healthcare guidelines, mandatory wearing of masks or protective helmets in common areas (optional in classrooms) and in school buses, frequent disinfection of all facilities (ranging from four times a day to hourly, depending on the part of the building and its purpose), and increased hygiene measures.

The ministry has outlined detailed protocols for cases when a pupil or teacher shows symptoms consistent with coronavirus infection, as well as separate protocols for confirmed positive Covid-19 tests by a pupil or adult school staff.

The ministry’s guidelines also cover a number of other topics, including alternative learning for pupils in high health risk groups, additional learning for pupils who miss classroom time (i.e. due to quarantine), and recommendations on maintaining a good mental health environment.

For the rest of The Sofia Globe’s continuing coverage of the Covid-19 situation in Bulgaria, please click here.

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The Sofia Globe staff

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