Schools, arts and culture feature prominently in discussions of Austria’s lockdown measures. They are also the two sectors hardest to open up quickly, as the virus tends to spread when people are packed close together indoors for several hours. This makes in-person instruction and most cultural events next to impossible.
Hence, when and how to reopen schools and cultural institutions has figured prominently in the government’s economic strategy. Education Minister Heinz Faßmann (ÖVP) wants to “get children back to school as quickly as possible.” But for the time being, schools remain officially shut, with school supervision offered to all who need it and distance learning for everyone else.
In Vienna and Lower Austria, in-person instruction will resume on February 8, and on February 15 in the other federal states, but only in shifts and smaller groups. Weekly rapid antigen tests (easier than the ones currently used) will be voluntary, FFP2 masks, however, mandatory for all teachers and older pupils.
Crucially, the minister also announced €200 million in additional funding for schools, which will be used for additional lessons once in-person classes resume. On average, each class should get two additional hours per week, which will probably be used to benefit weaker students. However, schools can decide which subjects and what form this support will take.
Waiting for “Day X” in Arts & Culture
Arts and culture reveals a bleaker picture, said State Secretary Andrea Mayer (Greens). “We can’t sugarcoat it,” she said. “The next few weeks will be tough for the arts and culture scene.” Opera, theaters and cinemas will remain closed, all events canceled. How long, the minister could not say, “but there will be a day X” of reopening, she promised. The restart will be cautious with masks, testing and spacing restrictions.
“The tests are an opportunity, not a hurdle,” she stressed. “They make events and many other things possible. I believe it will be uncomplicated and low-threshold to go to a cultural event with a test.” Testing will become “much more integrated into our everyday lives,” she added. Museums, galleries, libraries and archives will be able to open on February 8.
Existing aid in the cultural sector, from the WKÖ’s hardship fund for individual artists, the SVS (Social Insurances) bridge funding or the COVID-19 fund of the Artists’ Social Insurance will be extended until the end of June. The Ausfallsbonus will apply to both for- profit cultural businesses like cinemas, comedy clubs, agencies and film distributors as well as non-profit organizations. Mayer also announced a lockdown bonus for artists, which will total €1,000 per approved application for January and February.
“I am aware that no aid payment in the world can rectify that soon, it will be a full year that artists will not have been able to practice their professions,” Mayer said. The financial aid can only compensate somewhat on the material side.
“Artists need one thing: an audience,” Mayer said, appealing to the public to take advantage of the “variety of cultural offerings” that nevertheless exist, from broadcast performances to virtual exhibitions and streamed concerts.