Austria’s minister of education, Heinz Faßmann, presented a four-point plan on August 4, promising a “safe start of the school year in the fall.” Presented during a joint press conference with microbiologist Norbert Kreuzinger and virologist Dorothee von Laer, closing down schools and operating in shifts is no longer an option, Faßmann emphasized. “This is no longer supported by any member of the government.” To ensure an uninterrupted school year, the following safety programs will be introduced:
An early warning system through wastewater testing
Sewage analysts will regularly test 116 water treatment plants for “high risk” markers. This will help the government monitor 3,062 schools, which teach 75% of Austria’s total student body. The main advantage of this system is that the virus can be detected in wastewater one week before infection – if researchers get a hit, all schools in that specific area can be warned in time and preemptively implement additional testing or stiffen mask regulations.
In addition, the government will also conduct sweeping PCR spot checks in 300 schools across the country.
Starting this fall, students are to be screened for COVID three times a week, at least once with a PCR test. The checks will be carried out in classrooms, with the samples evaluated anonymously. In order to cut down on the airborne spread of the virus via the inhalation of aerosols, students will be advised to rinse their mouths with the saline solution instead of gargling. Antigen tests will still be performed in parallel, with the results of both recorded in the so-called “Ninjapass.” According to Faßmann, these have proven useful and will continue to be obligatory for students partaking in afterschool activities. Von Laer called this testing strategy a “perfect choice,” adding that vaccination is still the only assured way to stop the “Corona scare.”
Vaccination on Site
Vaccinated students will be exempt from mandatory testing. In addition, those 12 years and older will receive the opportunity to get their jab at school, with the government providing a fleet of 30 mobile vaccination buses to avoid long lines and infrastructure issues. In some states, this program will commence during summer school in the last two weeks of the summer break.
The plan also contains a transitional period of two weeks during which even vaccinated students still need to get tested. Also, the mandatory mask mandate remains in effect for the entirety of school premises – except classrooms. Unvaccinated teachers will, however, still be required to wear a mask during class.
10 million for air filtration systems
One previous point of contention between schools and the ministry has been the acquisition of air filtration systems and who would pay for them. This has been resolved, with the government agreeing to federal subsidies for buildings “where ventilation is not feasible.” A €10 million fund has been set up for this purpose with suitable systems to be chosen by the National Procurement Institute (BBG). However, this is just an “emergency measure,” not a permanent solution, Faßmann stressed.