Controversy as Bulgaria prepares for Covid testing to send young children back to school

Bulgaria is preparing to return children in the first to fourth grades back to in-person learning, on the basis of a system of twice-weekly non-intrusive testing for Covid-19, a move not without controversy.

A teachers’ trade union has listed numerous objections to the move, while it is not yet clear how many parents will consent to the testing of their children.

Much will depend on parents’ consent. The Education Ministry has said that in-person learning for young pupils will be restored if the parents of at least half the children in the class agree to have their children tested. Otherwise, the whole class will remain on distance learning.

Schools in numerous municipalities in Bulgaria have gone over to distance learning because of the Covid-19 morbidity rate in the municipality exceeding the threshold of 750 per 100 000 population. This, in turn, had caused discontent among parents of young pupils who had very short notice that in-person learning was being suspended.

The Education Ministry has given parents of first to fourth-grade pupils until noon on November 8 to declare whether they agree to have their children tested twice weekly or can present a valid document that the child has undergone Covid-19.

The ministry has posted sample declarations online, which may be submitted to the school by e-mail or on paper. It also has posted video of the testing process, which is saliva-based. The sample declarations, in Bulgarian, may be found at this link.

According to the ministry, the children will be tested in the classroom by a medical person and/or a teacher or member of the non-teaching staff appointed by the head of the school.

Volunteers, such as parents, mediators and representatives of the Bulgarian Red Cross, may also participate. They must have a Covid green certificate.

An exception is allowed for children with special educational needs, who will be tested by their parents at home. They must fill in a special declaration in which they undertake to do the tests on the days set for testing the other pupils, to take their child to school only after a negative test result, and to give the used test to the school.

Bulgarian National Television reported on November 7 that the first shipment of tests for first to fourth-grade pupils had arrived in Sofia. A total of 81 000 tests will be stored at a logistics facility of Sofia municipality in Pancharevo.

The report quoted Education Minister Nikolai Denkov as saying as long as the incidence of Covid-19 was high in Bulgaria and in the relevant district and municipality, testing would continue.

“If we fall below [a morbidity rate of] 250 per 100 000 population, testing will become unnecessary,” Denkov said.

According to the November 7 update by the unified information portal, Bulgaria’s national Covid-19 morbidity rate is currently 917.12 per 100 000 population.

Reportedly, on November 6 and 7, the Education Ministry distributed 180 000 tests, to 11 regional education departments. The remaining 220 000 tests are expected on November 8, and are to be immediately distributed to areas that did not receive tests from the first batch.

This past week, after calling a public tender for the supply of 400 000 tests, the Health Ministry concluded contracts with two Bulgarian companies, PK Scientific and Bulsnite. Each of the two companies is supplying 200 000 tests.

The Ministry of Health has published on its website a tender for a further 1 468 800 tests.

Bulgaria’s education trade union at the Podkrepa labour confederation listed numerous objections, including saying that more than 87 per cent of teachers were not prepared to test primary school pupils.

“Teachers and heads of schools cannot be responsible for medical procedures that are diametrically different from their job description,” the teachers’ union said.

Doing the tests in a controlled environment sent a message to parents that they were not trusted to do the testing at home and thus ensure the safety of their own child, the union said.

It said that the manufacturers specified that the tests should be done when the person had an empty stomach and had not drunk fluids. Many children travelled to school by school buses and a lack of food and water by 9am would put their health at risk, the statement said.

Mixing at school before the test put the whole class at risk of infection and quarantine, it said.

The union said that it would not be possible for one or two teachers to test the pupils within 30 minutes at the start of the school day. Testing 20 to 25 children would require no fewer than four to five adults, to be completed within half an hour.

The presence of outsiders at a school in situation put at risk the protection of confidential information about pupils.

The teachers’ union said that it would be “practically impossible” to comply with the anti-epidemic measures with regard to distancing of 1.5 metres.

Teachers, as testers, would become front-line staff against Covid-19, the union said.

At many schools, there were pre-school groups, in rooms adjoining school classes, but no provision had been made for testing them, the statement said.

(Main photo via the Education Ministry)

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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