Austria’s under-14s head back to school

Vienna, May 18 (efe-epa).- With noses and mouths covered by masks, students aged between six and 14 returned to Austria’s classrooms on Monday after nine weeks of home-learning due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Around half of the roughly 700,000 students eligible to return to school did so on Monday, with the other half expected to head back next week in line with the government’s plan to alternate attendance and limit gatherings.

“The sun is shining, school is open again. Today is, I believe, a good day for the school, the students, the teachers and the staff, and, very probably, for the parents too,” Heinz Fassmann, the education minister, said as he visited an elementary school in Brunn and Gebrige, south of the capital Vienna.

Daniel, an 11-year-old student arriving at the private Gymnasium Wasagasse school in Vienna, told Efe: “I’m very excited to go back to school, because at home we had to study all alone and now we can do it with the teacher. I’m excited to see my friends.”

Tuyen, 11, didn’t agree.

“I got used to studying at home and also most of my friends ended up in the other group,” she told Efe.

Her opinion had changed by the end of the school day.

“It was really good. I’m happy now, it’s not the same, but I like it, it’s not as noisy, it was very calm.”

She said school staff had provided disinfectant at the entrance of the building and that masks had to be worn at all times apart from when seated behind the desk.

Few children went out into the courtyard at recess, Tuyen said, adding they preferred to eat in the classroom and chat with friends.

Pupils must arrive at the school well before class starts to ensure that the process is staggered.

School cafeterias remain closed for the time being.

There is a maximum class size of 18 students, for which reason groups have been split and will attend class on an alternating schedule. The semester should conclude by the end of June.

What remains to be seen is the effect the lockdown has had on the students, especially those who struggle academically.

Although there will be no exams this semester, aside from a few exceptions, and students will automatically move on to the next grade, the University of Vienna warned that a third of 25,000 students who took part in a study on the effects of the lockdown may have suffered from being away from the classroom.

Psychologist Christiane Spiel told Efe there “had been big differences between the experiences of students, with some receiving good support at home while others had little or nothing.

“Often there is a chain of less favourable circumstances like low incomes, small housing, lack of space, equipment or internet connection,” she said.

She added that the focus should now be placed on an individual’s ability to learn by themselves, rather than returning to normal classroom environments.

In Belgium there was a peculiar back-to-school-day with classes open only to sixth-year elementary students and final year high school students.

In accordance with guidelines set by the national health advisory board, class sizes will be limited to 10 pupils.

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