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Prime Minister Janez Janša: It is in the common interest to reopen schools in a safe way without simultaneously risking the collapse of the healthcare system

Prime Minister Janez Janša met with representatives of educational institutions today. The participants of the meeting, which included Simona Kustec, the minister responsible for education, Alenka Forte, the State Secretary at the Ministry of Health, Marjan Dolinšek, the State Secretary at the Office of the Prime Minister, Damir Orehovec, the State Secretary at the Ministry of Education, Science and Sport and Vinko Logaj, the Director of the National Education Institute Slovenia, discussed the potential reopening and safe operation of at least a part of educational institutions during the coronavirus epidemic.

The meeting was opened by Milan Krek, the Director of the National Institute of Public Health, and Dr Bojana Beović, the head of the advisory group, both of whom briefed the participants on the current situation regarding the coronavirus epidemic. Mr Krek highlighted, "When deciding on the reopening of schools, we must bear in mind what is happening outside of schools, as they are part of a local community. If we reopen the schools, it is only sensible to keep them open for some time. In situations such as the current epidemic, school are all the more at risk, as there is also a greater possibility for the virus to enter them. It is important to protect every single person in schools – the teaching staff, children, kitchen staff, drivers, etc." said Mr Krek. Dr Beović spoke about the number of infections, the spread of coronavirus infections and the impact of vaccination. "Remote schooling began on 19 October, when the schools were closed at a lower number of cases, as the curve of infections was already growing and the measures prevented the further increase in the number of infections," she said. She also presented the number of cases in educational institutions and stressed that Slovenian schools lead to more infections than schools elsewhere. Dr Beović highlighted that in reopening schools, the vulnerability of the teaching staff, especially of the older staff, and the issue of children developing severe forms of COVID-19 should be considered.

In his introduction, Prime Minister Janez Janša said that he is familiar with remote schooling, as he has two school-age children. "We all want this period of abnormality to be as short as possible, but in an epidemic, effects become clear with a delay. The data presented for yesterday will have implications on the healthcare system in a fortnight," said the Prime Minister and added that a few thousand infections per day mean many more hospital beds occupied, more people in need of intensive care and mechanical ventilation, and more deaths. He is certain, "After a year since the start of the pandemic, there are no more unknowns." He also said that almost none of the restrictive measures would be necessary if the general recommendations during the pandemic were followed thoroughly. "If we maintained safe distance, disinfected our hands, ensured that our work process was safe and avoided close contact, if we all had done this, the measures would not be necessary," said the Prime Minister and added that some countries managed this by using modern technology. "In Taiwan, measures were introduced on 1 January of last year, and the number of infections was very low. Now they have a few infections per day and are able to hold concerts and events with an audience present. However, they all wear masks, disinfect their hands, maintain a safe distance and use the contact-tracing app," he explained. The Prime Minister also added that while some measures can be introduced and monitored centrally, other measures depend on whether or not they are being followed.

"One of the key factors dictating our actions that was considered in the roadmap for the relaxation of measures applicable from 3 December 2020 was the capacity of the healthcare system. If the healthcare system becomes overburdened with COVID-19 patients, people also die from other diseases which the healthcare system is unable to treat and this could mean we would be facing a situation such as the one in neighbouring Italy or in Serbia, where people did not receive medical attention due to an overburdened healthcare system", said the Prime Minister. "If we had more room for manoeuvre within the healthcare system, we could risk easing the measures more," he stated and added that the healthcare system is a key factor in the decision-making of all governments.

"If someone told me in spring that the Slovenian healthcare system is capable of treating 1,200 COVID-19 patients, I would not believe them. At the time we fought for every bed, the capacity was ten times smaller and almost all other treatments had to be halted due to the epidemic. By autumn, the healthcare system’s capacity was increased tenfold. Wherever possible, new facilities were built and new equipment was provided. However, new medical staff – doctors and nurses – could not be trained in six months, as the training takes years," said Mr Janša. He also recalled that in the past fifteen years, no homes for the elderly or nursing hospitals have been built in Slovenia, which is one of the reasons for all the available beds being occupied, since some people who do not require constant nursing care have nowhere to go. "We need nursing hospitals in every region and we already have the plans prepared as well as the funds secured from the Recovery and Resilience Facility. However, this will not help the situation in the following few months," said the Prime Minister.

"Reopening schools is a priority, but we will not achieve anything if we open everything and then subsequently be forced to close it all down again after one or two weeks, keeping the schools closed until April or May," assessed the Prime Minister. "We are also beginning to see the consequences of the measures eased during the Christmas holidays and will continue to do so for the next ten days," said Mr Janša and added, "We have little room to manoeuvre and cannot risk lifting the measures across the whole country with all the regions remaining red-listed, as that would facilitate hundreds of thousands of people to be in contact every day among which there would be hundreds of high-risk contacts. If we take this big risk, which is expected to accompany the reopening of schools and the physical presence of students and teachers, we will have to revert back to remote schooling until April or May," said Mr Janša and continued that this is not what we would have wanted and that we have stand together and stay the course to combat the new increase of cases resulting from the holiday period. "If the epidemiological situation improves, we could go forward with the orange phase in February and start lifting some measures as planned, but anything more than that poses too big of a risk," he said.

"As projected, we are now entering the most difficult period of the epidemic," he continued and added that there are also other options regarding the reopening of schools exercised in some other countries, but that is up to the teachers to decide.

"Our common goal is to facilitate the reopening of schools as soon as possible, not only the first three grades, but it has to be done in a safe way so as not to risk the collapse of the healthcare system," emphasised the Prime Minister and added that joint efforts are necessary.

The Prime Minister also underlined an intermediate option regarding pre-school institutions. "If the epidemiological situation improves in some regions, we could decide about pre-school institutions on a regional level," said Mr Janša.

During the discussion, Mr Janša said that he receives hundreds of messages from parents who, for fear of infection, call for schools to remain closed until it is safe for everyone, while he also receives many messages from parents who want the schools to open as soon as possible. "It is in our common interest to act responsibly and not open schools if it means they only remain open for a week and then, due to infections, have to be closed down again until April," said the Prime Minister.

He also emphasised that every government decision regarding the measures to curb the spread of the epidemic has been taken with the help of experts. The roadmap to ease measures was also adopted based on the assessment of the advisory group and the consultations with the colleagues across Europe.

"Until we reach the orange phases of easing measures, the schools are an environment in which the number of infections is on average ten-times higher in comparison to the European risk assessment system," said Mr Janša. According to the Prime Minister, the younger population has not been taking the virus seriously during the autumn wave as they often only fall ill with mild symptoms. "The second wave will continue into the winter. We expect the peak of infections with respiratory diseases at the end of January or at the beginning of February, and schools are an environment that facilitates the spread of the virus," said Mr Janša and added that many European countries are tightening the measures even though they did not plan on doing so. "Starting from tomorrow, the measure that will restrict movement only to essential trips to drug and grocery stores and one hour of exercise outside will be enforced in several European countries. Therefore, a large part of Europe will have tighter restrictions in the coming weeks, while also having a better epidemiological situation. The trend in the last few days has been worrying and the government has to take that into consideration," emphasised the Prime Minister.

During the discussion, he also emphasised that the responsibility regarding any openings in this epidemiological situation will lie with the government, which will adopt measures according to expert advice as "this has been and will remain our course of action". "The experts provide the guidelines for the safe operation of schools," added Mr Janša and continued by saying that there are three decision-making stages: the general decisions are taken by the Government, the quality of preventive measures is the domain of the experts, while the specifics and the observance of the measures proposed by the experts is the responsibility of the principals.

He also spoke about the signing of a joint declaration, which was necessary not because of the government but because of the division of opinion among parents. "Reopening the schools is a topic of conversation everywhere, not only in Slovenia, but the ongoing discussions do not only pertain to schools but also to many other topics," said Mr Janša. He also assessed that this joint declaration will enable us to view these differing opinions as different interests and positions of parents and also to bring them closer and cool tempers. "It is not necessary to come to this joint declaration. It is more important to address and solve practical dilemmas," he added and further mentioned the possibility of another meeting of stakeholders in educational institutions taking place next week. "It is almost certain that schools will not reopen on 11 January. In the best case scenario, testing will begin on 11 January, whereby testing and the reopening of schools cannot take place on the same day," said Mr Janša, noting that countries with a better epidemiological situation are postponing the reopening of the schools until 18 January 2021.