Turkish schools reopen at long last amid COVID-19 pandemic
Turkish education authorities visit a classroom in northwestern Bilecik province for inspection of COVID-19 precautions on Sept. 4, 2021. (IHA Photo)

Turkish schools reopen at long last amid COVID-19 pandemic

After months of hiatus and fierce debate, schools in Turkey are set to open amid a speedy and inclusive vaccination drive.

Schools across Turkey will reopen for in-person education five days a week as of Monday with COVID-19 safety measures in place.

This comes after the number of COVID-19 vaccine jabs given in Turkey exceeded 96.9 million since the country launched an immunization campaign in January.

Though daily COVID-19 cases are still high (around 20,000), Turkey is relying on its vaccination program to stave off a new surge.

First graders were already in schools last week for an orientation program.

As part of the preparations for the start of the new academic year, pre-school and first grade students participated in the face-to-face integration training on Sept. 1-3. Over 2.3 million students were given training by 165,450 teachers.


About 18 million students and more than 1 million teachers in all grades across the country will attend school five days a week as of Monday.

As part of COVID-19 measures, approximately TL 650 million ($78.1 million) were sent to around 58,000 schools for masks, disinfectants and cleaning needs, while 113,000 cleaning personnel were assigned.

The Ministry of National Education and the Health Ministry will set up a “data integration system” to track the health status of teachers and students. That is intended to facilitate contact tracing if necessary. The education staff will be trained on infection control before the start of the new school year.

In cases of possible infection, the necessary notifications will be issued to the schools.

PCR tests obligatory for the unvaccinated

Earlier, authorities also announced that teachers and other staff at schools would be required to regularly provide negative polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test results in order to attend in-person education.

The same will apply to the unvaccinated for intercity bus travel, flights and attendance at crowded events in cinemas, concert halls and theaters.

Under new guidelines, teachers and other staff at schools will be required to present negative test results twice a week. All schools will be required to store sufficient protective masks for everyone, from students to teachers. Masks will be provided by the Ministry of National Education. Schools have also been instructed on how to properly dispose of used masks.

It will be ensured that the mask waste boxes in schools, public areas, classrooms and teachers’ rooms are emptied daily.

In-person education will be held without reducing class hours and taking into account the whole of the existing curriculum, just like before the COVID-19 outbreak.

In-person education hit a snag both last year and this year due to the pandemic, which forced authorities to switch initially to remote classes and later to a hybrid education model with online classes and in-person classes offered together.

The Turkish government recently issued new guidelines for local education authorities for the start of in-person education. The guidelines recommend full vaccination (two doses) for parents, teachers, education staff, school bus drivers and canteen employees.

All students will be required to wear masks to school, but children with developmental problems and other conditions that make wearing masks difficult for them will be exempted or be required to don protective face gear such as face shields. They will be provided with backup masks at schools. Masks and face shields will be required to be used at the same time in situations requiring close contact.

Teachers will be obliged to wear masks all the time while at school or in the recess area. They will be required to change masks if they teach to different student groups on the same day. Time for school lunches and other meals will be limited.

Parents or visitors will not be allowed to enter inside the school building in most cases, and they would be required to wear masks at all times if they are allowed to enter in exceptional cases.

Classrooms will be properly ventilated and students will be instructed to spend more time outdoors during breaks between classes. While outside the building, students, teachers and other staff will be required to ensure social distancing and not to “make crowds.” Class hours will be arranged so as not to allow a large number of students to be present at school at the same time. The average length of a class will not exceed 40 minutes. Musical activities will be subject to social distancing rules.

Schools will be required to increase the times of general cleaning, while hand sanitizers will be placed in common areas.

‘Schools first places to open, last ones to close’

Turkey’s National Education Minister Mahmut Özer also said recently that “schools need to be the first places to open and the last ones to close,” adding that the country would take every step necessary to ensure in-person education for the academic year.

Özer’s words came at a joint press conference with Health Minister Fahrettin Koca following a meeting with the country’s Coronavirus Scientific Advisory Board, where he listed the precautions the two ministries have taken together to ensure the safety of teachers and students.

“We have already sent the guidelines we have created in cooperation with the Health Ministry to the school administrations across our 81 provinces as well as to the parents of our students. We have also sent masks, disinfectants and other supplies to all our schools,” he said.

“I would like to once again make a call to school administrations, teachers and parents to make sure our schools don’t get closed again. Please follow the guidelines set by both ministries to the letter. Please abide by those rules so schools can remain open. I would like to emphasize once again, schools should be the first places to open and the last ones to close,” he said.

Erol Özvar, the head of Turkey’s Council of Higher Education (YÖK), also said previously that universities would return to in-person education this year as well. Universities across Turkey were switched to remote learning when the pandemic first began in March 2020 and it will be the first time in more than 15 months that they will resume in-person education.

‘Higher vaccination rate needed’

Health Minister Koca also previously underlined that vaccines are the key to keeping schools open.

“This year schools won’t be closed because of the pandemic. Because now we have vaccines. That’s why we ask all our citizens to act responsibly and get their vaccines,” he said.

According to Health Minister Koca, 88% of teachers and school staff have already received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, while the figure for those who received both their shots is 75%.

Speaking about vaccination rates in general, Koca said 81% of current COVID-19 patients in Turkey were people who didn’t receive both shots.

“81% of the patients who make up our around 500,000 active cases are people who were not completely vaccinated. Similarly, 90% of those who were hospitalized are again, people who were not completely vaccinated,” Koca said, adding that the numbers were similar for those who passed away from the coronavirus as well.

“Only 10% of those who died from COVID-19 were fully vaccinated. Some 90% had either just one shot or didn’t have any. The bottom line is, vaccines protect us,” he said.

According to the Health Ministry data, Turkey has administered more than 96.7 million doses of COVID-19 shots as of Sunday. More than 49 million people have received at least one shot, while some 38 million received both.

‘Only way to avoid new variants is vaccination’

Meanwhile, Coronavirus Scientific Advisory Board member Dr. Serhat Ünal also urged people to get vaccinated and said that the only way to avoid new variants is vaccination.

“When an unvaccinated person is infected with the delta variant, the odds for their death increase quite a bit,” he said.

“Infection rates stand at 40 to 50% among vaccinated people, no matter which vaccine it is,” Ünal added, underlining that even if a vaccinated person gets infected, odds are on their side.

“Even if a vaccinated person gets infected, vaccines prevent serious illness,” he said, adding that the only way to prevent new mutations is vaccination.

This article originally appeared in DAILY SABAH on 05 Sep 2021.