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Education Minister: Distance learning will be "last resort" when schools return

Primary and secondary schools are set to reopen their doors for the new semester across the country next week.

Li Andersson
Education Minister Li Andersson (Left) said all other measures must be introduced first before children and young people are required to switch to distance learning. Image: Heikki Saukkomaa / Lehtikuva

Education Minister Li Andersson (Left) has said that schools will only switch to distance learning as a "last resort" measure even if the coronavirus situation in Finland continues to deteriorate.

The minister added that she believes children and young people will return to classrooms as normal when schools reopen again across the country next week.

"With regard to primary schools and secondary schools, I would emphasise that the need for contact teaching is huge," Andersson told Yle. "It is well known that the past year has had a major impact on the well-being of children and young people, and has also created a learning gap in both primary and secondary education. From the perspective of well-being and closing this learning gap, the return to contact teaching is very important."

Andersson also noted that the government outlined during the spring that restrictions on children and young people must always be a last resort, meaning that all other restrictions must be applied first.

Story continues after the photo.

Tytöt juoksevat ja hyppelevät yläkoulun tyhjällä käytävällä
Andersson said she believes students will return to classrooms when the school semester begins next week. Image: Johanna Manu / Yle
The minister was commenting after Kirsi Varhila, Chief of Staff at the Ministry of Social Affairs and Health, told Yle's A-studio current affairs programme on Wednesday evening that contact teaching may be curtailed as Finland's infection rate increases.

Health agency THL has reported more than 600 cases on both Tuesday and Wednesday this week, with a further 765 infections recorded on Thursday.

Restrictions on bars, restaurants the first priority

THL and the Ministry of Social Affairs and Health reported earlier on Thursday that there has been a significant increase in the number of young people testing positive for coronavirus over the past two weeks, especially among the 18- to 21-year-old age group.

"Our starting point is that contact lessons will take place in the autumn. If the coronavirus situation means that more restrictions are needed, all other means must be used first to reduce the number of infections among young adults before large-scale distance learning can even be discussed," Andersson said, adding that restrictions on bars and restaurants could be a more effective way of curbing the spread of infections among the younger age groups.

"I think it is likely that the government will have to discuss restrictions on bars and restaurants again and what else is needed to bring the situation under control," she said.

The government has reintroduced some restrictions on bars and restaurants across regions considered to be in the acceleration phase of the pandemic, effective from this Saturday.

Story continues after the photo.

Ihmisiä viettämässä iltaa terassilla.
Infections are spreading among younger age groups, according to data provided by health authorities. Image: Henrietta Hassinen / Yle
"I also consider it important that the vaccination situation is discussed within the government and that vaccinations progress as quickly as possible. It is currently possible for young adults to receive a coronavirus vaccine. How could we put more emphasis on the need for them to take the vaccine," the minister said.

However, due to localised clusters of infections, some primary and secondary schools may still have to resort to distance learning or use a hybrid model of distance learning and contact lessons.

Amendments to the Basic Education Act allow municipalities to introduce exceptional measures if the coronavirus situation in the area so requires.

"No large-scale national distance learning policies have been discussed. The government agreed last spring that such guidelines would no longer be made for basic education," Andersson said.

Government to discuss strategy next week

Finland's government is set to discuss the current strategy for tackling the pandemic at a meeting scheduled for next week, and Andersson told Yle that the subject of restrictions will be under review.

She added that as the majority of the population has still not received two doses of a coronavirus vaccine, the vaccination rollout will also be discussed, with a possibility that vaccination of 12- to 15-year-olds may begin in August.

Andersson said the progression of the vaccination rollout is important because restrictions cannot be kept in place indefinitely.

"For children and young people, this period has already been too long," she said, adding that she is open-minded about the introduction of a 'corona pass', as it could help to alleviate the plight of the cultural and events industry.

In an interview with Yle yesterday, Minister of Economic Affairs Mika Lintilä (Cen) said he believed that a simple update of the current strategy will not be enough, but a completely new plan is needed is tackle the increasing number of cases as well as the virus variants.

"This will certainly be discussed within the government," Lintilä said. "There has been a lot of talk that instead of infection rates, more attention should be paid to healthcare capacity, vaccine coverage, and vaccination progress."

Andersson said that the government's strategy will be fully updated to reflect the new situation.

"The challenge here is that when the entire population does not yet have two doses of a vaccine, in this situation we are forced to apply some kind of hybrid strategy," she said.

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