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School children undergo temperature checks with the help of a thermal imager. Volgograd, September 28, 2020.

School’s out for quarantine Thousands are falling ill at Russian schools despite strict guidelines during the coronavirus pandemic

Source: Meduza
School children undergo temperature checks with the help of a thermal imager. Volgograd, September 28, 2020.
School children undergo temperature checks with the help of a thermal imager. Volgograd, September 28, 2020.
Dmitry Rogulin / TASS / Scanpix / LETA

Usually, Russia’s schools take a week-long holiday in mid-autumn. This year, schools across the country were supposed to go on break as of October 26. But in three regions — Moscow, Sakhalin, and the Ulyanovsk Region — school children have already been sent on a two-week vacation due to outbreaks of the coronavirus. In Moscow and Ulyanovsk, schools have been closed since October 5. In Sakhalin, they’ve been closed since October 12. And whether or not these kids will be headed back to the classroom after the break remains unknown.

In Sakhalin, it’s no secret that the local authorities are contemplating a return to the kind of distance learning school children experienced in the spring. In Ulyanovsk, they’re considering another plan: it’s possible that schools will continue to work for another four to five weeks, and then take another two-week break. In Moscow, the authorities are waiting until October 18 to assess how the vacation impacted the pandemic’s development. Citing a source in the mayor’s office, Interfax reported that school children in the Russian capital could be switched to distance learning after the break. Moscow Mayor Sergey Sobyanin admitted that children heading back to their classrooms will depend on how the situation with the coronavirus develops in the city. The federal government is also waiting until October 18 to make a decision about switching all school children across the country to distance learning. 

New rules

Russia’s public health authority, Rospotrebnadzor, laid out how schools should operate during the pandemic and the same rules have applied across the country since September 1. Classes are assigned a specific classroom — the children no longer travel from class to class, instead their teachers come to them. Alexey Fedulkin, a math teacher at Moscow School Number 171, told Meduza that this setup has made life very difficult for teachers: “You have to carry textbooks, pamphlets, and notebooks from different classes with you. [Sometimes] you simply don’t have time to switch.” Moreover, Fedulkin’s school is now suffering from a lack of large classrooms that can accomodate an entire class — as a result, high school students had to attend class remotely once a week before the break. 

To minimize contact between students, the classes are divided into “streams” — each with its own specific time for entering and exiting the schools, as well as for recess, breakfast, and lunch. School children undergo temperature checks before entering the building. Alla Vasilinina, an English teacher at a private school in Moscow, told Meduza that classroom teachers are responsible for taking the school children’s temperatures — they record the results in a special diary.

School authorities recommend that the students wear masks when entering and exiting the building, as well as during breaks. However, the teachers Meduza interviewed stressed that the majority of school children aren’t wearing masks. The school authorities recommend that teachers wear masks even during lessons — and the administration is monitoring their compliance. There are surveillance cameras set up in every classroom, because of the Unified State Exam, Fedulkin explains. “There are cameras in every classroom, they are monitoring this, the higher-ups are scolding [us]. They’re scaring everyone with the cameras. [It’s] like they’re watching through the cameras and taking photos of teachers without masks,” he says. At the same time, according to the teacher, if the school children are wearing masks, it’s only for the fun of it.

Outbreaks nonetheless 

Before the start of the school year, Moscow’s teachers underwent mandatory coronavirus testing en masse — at the time, less than 3 percent of teachers were diagnosed with the disease. After the school year began, new cases began emerging almost immediately, teachers from Moscow, St. Petersburg, Ulyanovsk, and the Nizhny Novgorod Region told Meduza. Private school teacher Alla Vasilinina said that in September, several of her colleagues in Moscow went into quarantine right away; some of them were diagnosed with the coronavirus, while others had respiratory infections.

At the same time, if a teacher catches the coronavirus, the children and other staff members they were in contact with aren’t sent into quarantine. On the other hand, in the case of the school children, all classmates are considered in contact with each other — so if one student gets diagnosed with COVID-19, the entire class goes into quarantine. In conversation with Meduza, epidemiologist Anton Barchuk emphasized that this is a very strange recommendation: “Everyone should be sent [into quarantine]. Teachers are at greater risk of getting sick. They are the more vulnerable group. For children, covid isn’t a high-risk disease. 

Teachers also underscore that since the children (unlikely their instructors) don’t usually wear masks, they could become a source of infection. In addition, regardless of the fact that each class is assigned a particular classroom, the children from different classes continue to interact with each other — for example, if children from the same family are in different classes.

A mother whose two children are in fifth and eighth grade in Moscow told Meduza that as of mid-September, 12 of the 22 schools in their district had classes that were under quarantine. “At our school, the illness started with the high school students, they’re as close as possible to adults and more susceptible to the disease. In the last week before the holidays, there were reports everyday that yet another class had gone into quarantine. Since the children are interacting in parallel, referral to quarantine is conditional. The classes are going into quarantine one after another, [it] flows into infinity…How many carriers are coming to school? Actually, we don’t know,” she says. 

“The school’s weak spots are the children, who, as far as I understand, are often asymptomatic carriers. Teachers aren’t immune to the infection, you may or may not want to be around children, but you’re in close contact with them all day. And since there are no symptoms [in children], then it’s not clear where it came from,” Alena Beznosova, an elementary school teacher from the Nizhny Novgorod Region, told Meduza. “If any child gets sick and symptoms don’t appear, then all of the measures taken won’t save [you] from the infection,” agrees Alexander Gushchin, a physical education and classroom teacher from Nizhny Novgorod

Educators emphasize that the danger of contracting the coronavirus is also increasing dramatically due to the fact that these strict regulations don’t apply outside of schools. “When we leave the school grounds, we forget about the masks and other protective equipment, this applies to both the teachers and the children. Outside of school, we don’t care as much about our health. Therefore, absolutely anyone could bring in the virus, if they’re walking around a crowded city,” notes Nika Plotnikova, a teacher St. Petersburg’s School Number 506. 

Epidemiologist Anton Barchuk adds that while some schools may have no cases, or a minimal number of cases, others could experience serious outbreaks simultaneously. This can be attributed to the particularities of the spread of the coronavirus: “There’s the phenomenon of superspreading: an event or a place where a super spread [of the infection] occurs. Many cases of mass infection are linked to a single source. There’s a person who went to work with symptoms, even subtle ones, interacted with a lot of people, was in a meeting [that] took place indoors — and then there’s an outbreak and the entire school has to be closed.” 

To avoid outbreaks in schools, children and teachers with so much as a runny nose, sore throat, or other symptoms that wouldn’t normally be cause for staying home shouldn’t come to class during the pandemic. “Ideally, of course, get tested before going [back] to school or, at the very least, wait and spend at least a few days at home without symptoms. [This] rule must be strictly observed, since one case is enough — then there's an outbreak at the school and they close it,” Barchuk explains. 

Hitting teachers the hardest

In conversation with Meduza, epidemiologist Sergey Otvagin says that on the whole, Rospotrebnadzor’s rules are beneficial in the fight against the coronavirus. In turn, Anton Barchuk underscores that the regional authorities should make a decision on completely closing schools on the basis of the workload on medical services, not on the number of cases: “It’s preferable to close schools when the governors see that medical services are starting to get busier than usual. And look at the overall situation in the region.”

These days, schools are being closed all over Russia. Back in early September, a school in the town of Vyska (Nizhny Novgorod Region) was closed for quarantine due to a COVID-19 outbreak among teachers. In Omsk, four schools, as well as separate classes at 15 different schools, are studying remotely. In Karelia, one school has closed due to the coronavirus. And in Lipetsk a school was closed for quarantine after its director fell ill.

Overall, by mid-September, only 0.1 percent of Russia’s schools had gone into quarantine due to the coronavirus or respiratory infections. By October 5, 0.29 percent of all schools had already closed (that’s approximately 150 educational institutions). Exactly how many teachers and students have been infected remains unknown, however, about a thousand teachers came down with the coronavirus in the first week of September alone. In conversation with Meduza, Anton Barchuk underscored that between 8 and 12 percent of students and teachers being ill or having been ill can now be considered the norm. Sergey Ovagin added that once 20 percent of students are sick, the schools should be closed. 

Epidemiologists predicted a spike in incidence of the coronavirus in Russia in the fall from the start, but this wasn’t just linked to schools being back in session, Anton Barchuk notes. “In September, life begins in many cities: the academic year for universities, the work year. People start interacting more often, there’s more meetings, gatherings, traveling on public transport. Together, this all led to a natural increase in cases.”

Barchuk says that epidemiologists still don’t have enough information about the virus to draw accurate conclusions about whether or not schools in particular are sources of mass infection. “There’s still no general consensus on schools, but in many European countries where restrictive measures are being applied, they don’t view schools as the main source of infection. In Scandinavia, they’re trying not to close them. If they’re introducing measures, then it [should be] restrictions on the work of bars and restaurants, universities, and those that can be switched to remote work,” he says.

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Story by Alexandra Sivtsova

Translation by Eilish Hart