Schools should re-open on 15 May, says Flemish education sector


Flanders’s official proposal for the re-opening of schools is extremely cautious, suggesting that only four age groups return in the first week

Leak prompts announcement

Flemish education minister Ben Weyts (N-VA) has announced the region’s official proposal to the Security Council as to the re-opening of schools. Educational authorities recommend sending only a portion of pupils back to school, and not until 15 May.

The plan calls for pupils from specific years to return to class first, but only part time. The other days, they would continue with online learning. The plan outlines which pupils would return to school on 15 May:

  • 1st and 2nd year of primary school, four days a week
  • 6th year of primary school, two days a week
  • 6th year (the final year for most) of secondary school, one or two days a week, depending on which track the pupil is following – ASO, TSO, KSO or BSO. Seventh-year students in BSO would also return to class

Pupils in other years would continue to be educated via online learning. Pre-schoolers would also not return to school yet.

A Friday was chosen to start the transition back to school because it would allow a test day before a full week. At the end of the first week, an evaluation would take place to decide if more pupils can return in the weeks that follow.

“This isn’t ideal, but it is what is possible,” said minister Weyts in a statement. “I fully realise that it will not be without its critics. Some will think it comes too late, some too soon, some too much and some too little. But in these times, we must dare to take up our responsibility and make decisions. Our parents, pupils and teachers have the right to a concrete perspective.”

Press leak

The announcement followed an article in Le Soir newspaper releasing information on several measures being discussed by the Security Council and the Exit Strategy committee (Gees). The Security Council will make an official announcement tomorrow as to the extension of measures to control the spread of the coronavirus. Current measures are in place until 3 May.

Documents containing details of ongoing discussions were leaked to Le Soir, though it is unknown who is responsible for the leak. According to KU Leuven virologist Marc Van Ranst, who sits on Gees, these documents are shared with a number of politicians to get feedback.

Weyts subsequently decided to release details of Flanders’s advice to the councils in order to communicate clearly to teachers, pupils and parents how the region sees the coming weeks in education. “The leak contained other scenarios for opening up the schools, so we wanted to try to prevent the situation from becoming even more chaotic that it already was,” he said.

The groups and days were chosen in order to limit the number of pupils in the class and the school at any given time, Weyts (pictured above) told VRT. “We tried to balance the health risks with the need for certain groups of pupils to be present in the classroom,” he said. “We landed on the first two years because those are critical learning years. Children are learning the very basics of subjects and skills, such as reading and  mathematics. Older pupils are building on these skills.”

Pupils in the sixth year of primary school were then targeted because “it is an essential year that transitions them into secondary school. That’s also true for the sixth year of secondary school. It’s then that you choose either to continue on to higher education or to the workforce”.

The government has provided all schools with both safety and pedogeological guidebooks to help with the transition. Every school must do a health risk assessment, for instance, and assign one person to ensure that the measures set out by the government for hygiene and social distancing are followed. Outside experts are also available to guide schools through the process.

Schools have quite a lot of freedom, and of course responsibility, to implement their own systems

- Lieven Boeve

Schools themselves can make decisions about when pupils arrive and when breaks and playtimes are taken in order to prevent pupils from congregating in large groups. They are also free to decide if they will begin with half days or full days.

“Schools have quite a lot of freedom, and of course responsibility, to implement their own systems,” said Lieven Boeve, head of the Catholic education network. “And the government guidelines will support them in making these decisions.”

The advice follows discussions among Weyts’s ministry, education networks and unions. The head of the Gees council, infectious disease specialist Dr Erika Vlieghe, also approves of the plan, Weyts told VRT. While the Security Council does not have to follow Flanders’s advice, it is expected that it will to a large extent.

Photos, from top: ©Eric Lalmand/BELGA, ©Benoit Doppagne/BELGA