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At a press conference on Wednesday, the Minister of Education, Dariusz Piontkowski, announced that the current state of epidemic allows for reopening „an overwhelming majority of educational facilities”. – Only schools in red and yellow areas, where the number of infection cases is relatively high, might have to follow additional preventive measures – he added.

Schools in red zones will be banned from organizing school trips and mass events. They should also make sure that there is only one class in each available assembly hall. –Wherever possible, we recommend to plan the breaks in a way that will allow students to follow social distancing guidelines. For instance, breaks could be organized on a rotational basis, meaning that only some classes could be out in the hallway during the break – says Izabela Kucharska, deputy chief sanitary inspector.

Piontkowski: Local governments will have to pay, too

When asked whether local governments can count on the state for financial support to help them comply with sanitary restrictions once the schools reopen, during a press conference on Tuesday, the Minister of Education said: - This epidemic is not the government’s fault. The costs it has generated have to be shared equally among the central and local governments, but also private businesses. It’s simply impossible to help everyone and refund everything. The government has spent billions to alleviate the effects of the epidemic. Schools, and not only the public ones, received some of the funds. We provided disinfectants to anyone who applied for them. Several thousand schools received cost-free dispensers – he listed the examples. – After all, it’s the principal’s duty to provide students with enough soap and paper.

On Monday, in an interview for the daily “Dziennik Gazeta Prawna”, the Minister emphasized again that now local governments have to take on even greater responsibilities than before: -You’re asking me to make sure that schools provide their students with proper teaching conditions, but that’s the sole responsibility of local administrations – he told the interviewer. –Local governments don’t spend enough money on education. We’ve been saying that many times before. It’s not the fault of the ministry or the government that some of the local administrations don’t think in a long-term perspective and fail to provide children with appropriate conditions to work and learn. If the local government hasn’t managed to do it for so many years, we won’t be able to change the situation within one single week or even a month- he added, pointing out that it is within the scope of the school principal’s duties to plan and organize breaks, lunches, and classes, and that the city’s president should also take interest in doing so. – Again, let me remind you that it is the duty of every local government  to ensure that schools are equipped and managed properly. Thus, it’s also their task to make sure that schools are not overcrowded- Piontkowski said.

All responsibility falls on the school principals and directors- so says the bill

A series of draft bills aimed at regulating the conditions for reopening schools recently prepared by the Ministry of Education is much in the same vein- the new regulations speak of passing most responsibilities onto school principals and local governments. On Tuesday, shortly before 11:00 pm, the Ministry issued a communique informing the media about the start of public consultations. Consultations ended on Wednesday at 1:00 pm. The new bills would be passed the same day.

There are five new legislative projects. The first one mentions the school principal as the main authority to make decisions about closing the school, suspending classes or entire cohorts. To do so, the principal’s decision must first be approved by governing authorities (in this case, it’s usually the local administration), and the district sanitary inspector must issue a positive opinion.

Should the epidemiological situation deteriorate, the second bill gives the government the power to suspend classes in educational facilities across the entire country or in a given district. Such a scenario would necessitate the classes to move online. And what if online learning cannot be implemented? In that case, the school principal has to decide on a “different mode of conducting educational activities”.

The third project implies that in a situation when teaching cannot take place in person, the full responsibility for organizing online classes and making sure that educational activities continue uninterrupted falls on the school principal or director. It includes 14 paragraphs listing all the duties that need to be fulfilled. The school principal/director will have to determine whether all students and teachers have internet access and the necessary tools to communicate with each-other and conduct classes. Another duty includes devising a code of conduct to ensure that the classroom is safe. Moreover, school principals/directors will have to decide on the scope of teaching material and, if necessary, modify the teaching programme so that it doesn’t put disproportionate burden on some and not others, is differentiated, and in accordance with the students’ physical and mental capabilities. Ensuring digital hygiene (i.e. combining activities which do and do not require a screen) will be another obligation. The school principal is also responsible for the so-called lost children and needs to devise a “system to confirm attendance, but also determine how and when absence during class is to be justified”. Additionally, all children must be given access to teachers if there’s a need to consult them, and there needs to be a system allowing to verify the students’ knowledge. A curator will hold the school principals/directors accountable for the effectiveness of their work. The legislative project also mentions that the organization of online classes and the scope of teaching material will be subject to particular supervision.

The fourth draft bill refers to providing education to children of Polish citizens who are temporarily abroad because of the epidemiological situation. The fifth and last legislative project regulates how kindergartens should operate during the epidemic.

School principals: we only have a week and half to prepare

Dorota Łoboda, co-founder of the „Parents against educational reform” movement and a member of the Warsaw City Council, disagrees with how the legislative projects interpret the autonomy of principals and directors. She calls it opaque and too burdensome. – What about the management of coalmines? The directors haven’t been given any decision-making power to close them, or have they? No. First the government had the mineworkers tested, and then the Minister of State Assets, Jacek Sasin, ordered them to close. And when it comes to schools, small children, it is the school principal and not even the sanitary inspector who has to file a similar request. On which basis? The number of infections in a given district? – she asks.

At a press conference on Wednesday, Izabela Kucharska, a representative of the Chief Sanitary Inspectorate, explained the criteria determining whether classes should be moved online. The first criterion will be information about a possible case of infection. – For example, if a student, teacher, or someone from the school personnel had tested positive. The epidemiological situation in a given region is another element we have to consider – she said.

Marek Pleśniar, the managing director of the Polish Association of Education Managers, points out that the Ministry of Education has given school principals and directors far too little time to prepare: - It’s middle of August, and we’re left with only a week and a half to finish the recruitment process and call a staff council meeting. On top of that, this year we also to need to formulate internal procedures following the Ministry’s guidelines. We have to decide on the work dynamics for the entire school, plan security procedures. Why did the Ministry wait so long with announcing the new regulations? It could’ve done that already a month ago. The Ministry neglected its responsibilities. Why? – he asks. Giving the management more decision-making power and autonomy isn’t something inherently bad, but the personnel also needs a helping hand. These new regulations are poorly designed, ambiguous, and will likely cause more chaos. We can’t afford ourselves to waste our time on figuring out how to fill the gaps left by the Ministry. September 1 is right around the corner. There’s also a second question: where do we find the money to implement all this? We already know we won’t be getting any overtime, extra-curricular classes are out of question. It’ll be problematic to distribute the work in a way that allows students to keep a safe distance when walking past each other, and the teachers won’t stay overtime for free. There’s also the question of infrastructure. We expected the summer holiday season to be a time of intensive preparations, we thought that teachers will receive necessary training, that all the equipment will be collected, but the government didn’t even care to get involved. We’re being forced to join the battle with nothing but our bare hands. It is a bitter kind of freedom. I hope that we won’t have a situation where the government is credited for reopening schools while the local administrations are being blamed for closing them – he adds. 

Money for education. Will local governments shoulder their new responsibilities?

Earlier, we’ve already asked school principals and directors how they imagine organizing classes in Grade 8 elementary schools and high schools, where the double cohort causes the schools to overcrowd. Many of them pointed out that in this case, it will be much easier to simply take the classes online. Others mentioned a hybrid teaching system. A class would be divided in two: while one half would attend the classes in person, the other half will have to stay at home and listen to a live transmission online. The groups would shift every week. School principals also mentioned that this will be the only way to organize a hybrid teaching system, since local governments already announced that there won’t be any additional funds for paid overtime.

Already in April, mayors and presidents tried to alert the public about the coming budget cuts to education: split grade classrooms, no extracurricular activities. After the educational reform initiated by Law and Justice, local governing bodies have been given more responsibilities without receiving additional funds. This had led some municipalities to nearly declare bankruptcy already in autumn of last year. Zawidz, where in November 2019 there were no funds to even pay the teaching staff, is a case in point.

– We can’t afford any additional expenses. Our budget is tight; we need to count every penny. We already spent all the money we had on education. We were looking for savings anywhere we could. We’ve cancelled all investments. We don’t have any resources of our own. Forget about any additional overtime for teachers doing online work - says Dariusz Franczak, the mayor of Zawidz municipality. He emphasized that the dramatic financial situation in terms of education started much earlier, before the pandemic, and is related to further expenses connected to changes in the education system that the central government imposed on local governments. – These additional duties were not followed by additional funds. The subsidies are growing, yes, but they are disproportionate to the costs we incur. What’s more, our tax revenues are have been reduced, and there is a negative demographic tendency - the mayor explained. He is also worried about the 6% raise for teachers starting in September. - We know that the government will not give us money to pay for it, we were told that the funds have already been included in the subsidies. We are counting the money, let’s see if we have enough- he adds.

In their letter to the Ministry of Education, local government officials and members of the Union of Polish Metropolises, the Union of Rural Municipalities of the Republic of Poland, the Association of Polish Counties, and the Association of Polish Cities point out that the new regulations are putting the entire responsibility for making the schools safe amid coronavirus epidemic on school principals and directors. They also called for comprehensive consultations.

-How can a school principal know whether one of the students has been infected or not? What will happen when the school needs to close, and who will decide when to return to a regular mode of teaching? – asks Aleksandra Dulkiewicz, the president of Gdańsk.

- If I understand the guidelines prepared by the Ministry of Education correctly, it looks like the school principal equipped with a thermometer will be the only authority checking for potential cases of coronavirus infection, is that right? – says Krzysztof Iwaniuk, the mayor of Terespol municipality and the chairman of the Union of Rural Municipalities of the Republic of Poland. – Who should protect the child if it turns out to have fever, if the parents don’t own a car or have gone to work? And what about additional benefits for parents who have to stay at home if the school is closed? – he asked.

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