Gag Order? Austria’s Education Ministry Attempts to Silence Reports of Coronavirus Cases at Schools

Keeping schools open in the pandemic has become a hot-button topic. A new directive of Austria’s Education Ministry now wants to control who should know about positive cases

Austrian teachers have been told that “schools have no competence” to take measures when somebody tests positive in a class, according to a new directive from the Austrian Ministry of Education. The only permitted course of action is to “inform the health authorities,” which will then take all necessary further action. Having a suspected or confirmed COVID-19 case at a school “does not mean that the class or school will automatically be isolated,” the directive goes on (quotes from page 22 of the directive). 

Teachers and principals say that this effectively amounts to shutting down the flow of information. The directive says “school administrations will be informed by local health authorities what the next required steps are and who should be contacted,” effectively saying that neither principals nor head teachers may inform other students, parents or their own colleagues of a suspected or confirmed positive case until further instructions arrive.

Until the health authorities act, all children are to “continue going to school and stay within the same class.”

However, even in the best of times, the information chain from authorities can be very long, teachers say. And in the environment of the coronavirus, could easily amount to a delay of several days. It remains unclear if other students, teachers or parents will be informed at all.

Teachers also point to other grave mistakes that have made them feel unsafe – for example, schools were promised FFP2 masks for teachers. In practice, however, at several schools the number of masks delivered has been even less than the number of teachers, let alone several that would be needed per person to ensure protection over several weeks.

Sharp Criticism

The guidelines have caused an uproar among teachers and directors, who have been told that lessons should continue normally until health authorities take further steps. The Federation of Austrian School Directors has immediately filed a formal complaint and teachers – who were just informed today – are also criticizing the new guidelines sharply.

Since Austria entered its second “softer” lockdown on November 3, the country has debated whether the measures were strict enough to flatten the curve. One particular bone of contention has been schools and kindergartens, which have stayed open for children up to 14 years old. Austria’s Education Minister Heinz Faßmann (ÖVP) points to the essential function of schools especially for young children and those with learning difficulties, as well as for society, and home schooling deemed hard to impossible for many parents.

But there is also a growing chorus of researchers and international experts who warn that the role of schools in the spread of the virus must not be underestimated.

On Monday, November 9, four Austrian scientists called for an “immediate closure of all schools.” Schools are not the sole cause of the explosion in case numbers, they wrote, but “certainly make a significant contribution;” closing them is “one of the most effective individual measures.” On the current trajectory, say the four scientists, “Austria is hurtling into the disaster of overburdened hospitals, where physicians triage and untreated patients must be left to die.”

A Lively Scientific Debate

For the flu, children and schools are the main driving factor. However, this seems not to be the case for SARS-CoV-2, as German virologist Christian Drosten noted in April of this year. A US study from this October also noted that schools are “probably” no COVID hotspots.  

But many experts also warn explicitly that this does not mean children play no role in the pandemic and that assuming so is dangerous. A study published in the The Lancet on October 22 analyzed 790 phases of (partial) school closures from 131 countries. It concluded that “closing schools alone could decrease transmission by 15%” and “reopening schools could increase transmission by 24%.”

A modelling study from China showed that school closure alone could not interrupt transmission, but it could potentially reduce peak incidence by 40–60% and delay the epidemic of COVID-19. A study published in the Medical Journal of Australia on October 25 emphasized that “we can no longer afford to overlook the role children play in transmission if we hope to contain the virus.”

And there’s more:

  • A US study showed that “asymptomatic children can spread coronavirus for weeks;”
  • A South Korean study noted that “older children spread the coronavirus just as much as adults;”
  • A publication of the European Center for Disease Control (ECDC) said that symptomatic “children shed virus in similar quantities to adults and can infect others in a similar way to adults;”
  • And a study by Christian Drosten underlined already in the spring that leaving schools open “remains a risk,” based on data from schools in France and Australia.

See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil

The Austrian Society for Safe Nutrition and Health (AGES), which supports the ministries and agencies involved in health policy, has so far spoken out against the closure of schools. Dr. Daniela Schmid, infectiologist at the Institute for Medical Microbiology and Hygiene, and head of the AGES maintained that “hygiene concepts are in place in schools” and that closing them might thus actually increase risks and spread. Schmid also spoke out against closing the schools for 15-19 years old, as without school, they “would be alone [at home] and could freely decide what to do, e.g. meet friends.”

With all this, a directive to slow down the flow of information seems hardly the right way to combat skepticism about government measures.

Benjamin Wolf
Benjamin studied Journalism, History and International Affairs. After stints with Cafébabel in Paris and Arte in Strasbourg, he is now working as managing editor and COO for Metropole in Vienna. Fields of expertise are politics, economics, culture, and history.Photo: Visual Hub

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