Gradual return to school to continue in Belgium
At its meeting on Wednesday, 27 May, the Consultation Committee agreed – based on a proposal by the education ministers and a recommendation by the Exit Strategy Expert Group (GEES) – on the next steps in ensuring that Belgian schoolchildren can return to school. It will be recalled that during the second phase of the easing of the lockdown, the decision was taken to gradually resume lessons for preschool, primary and secondary pupils. Children's development is a priority for the authorities. It is also acknowledged that the lockdown can have a significant impact on mental, social and educational well-being.
So far, only pupils in three years of primary and three years of secondary school have resumed lessons; preschool lessons remain suspended. The higher education sector has already made arrangements for the end of the 2019-2020 academic year. The ongoing easing of restrictions in education depended to a large extent on the development of the health and healthcare situation in Belgium.
In their recommendations, the GEES experts highlight a number of factors that make it possible to continue easing the lockdown. First of all, the relevant indicators for monitoring the trend in the spread of COVID-19 in Belgium continue to be encouraging, taking into account the virus incubation period. Secondly, knowledge about the virus within the international scientific community has grown in recent weeks. In addition, the GEES experts note that studies, as well as experience in various countries, show that children are less affected by the virus and also less contagious. Consequently, reopening schools will not lead to a significant resurgence of the epidemic, provided that certain protocols continue to be scrupulously followed.
Therefore, after consulting with the sector and in accordance with the GEES experts' advice, the Consultation Committee has taken the following decisions:
- All lessons in preschools will be able to resume from 2 June.
- For educational and social reasons, teachers will not be advised to wear masks when around children. However, the wearing of masks is still strongly recommended around other adults.
- Maintaining social distancing is not necessary.
- All lessons in primary schools will be able to resume from 8 June (possibly with a 'trial' day on 5 June).
- Primary schoolchildren will not need to wear masks. However, teachers and support staff are strongly advised to wear masks if social distancing cannot be observed.
- Social distancing rules may be eased for contact between primary schoolchildren, but will remain in force between pupils and their teachers, between teachers themselves, and between teachers and parents.
- During breaks, pupils should play with their own classmates as much as possible, in line with the 'contact bubble' principle.
- As far as secondary education is concerned, the Communities may decide to allow more pupils to return to school but only for a few days.
- The wearing of masks is highly recommended for pupils and school staff.
- Hygiene measures (frequent hand washing, etc.) remain essential for everyone.
- Classrooms, corridors and staffrooms must be kept well ventilated at all times.
- Outdoor lessons and activities should be prioritised where possible.
- Every school must have an emergency plan for dealing with an outbreak.