UPDATE. Masks, disinfectant and first-day jitters. Amid Covid-19 pandemic, schools reopen in Romania with 100,000 still learning online

Foto: INQUAM/George Călin

Most schools in Romania reopened Monday with first-day-of-school jitters mixed in with fears of a still-raging pandemic, tempered by the excitement at finally returning to school.

Masked-up pupils told masked-up television reporters they were looking forward to being back in the classroom after schools closed on March 11 when authorities declared a state of emergency as the Covid-19 pandemic hit Romania.

President Klaus Iohannis, himself a former physics teacher, on Monday told pupils in a video message: “Every one of you will have the chance to be a super hero when you wear a mask, wash your hands and listen to what the teacher tells you to protect your parents and grandparents.”

But not all of Romania’s 2.8 million school-age students are returning to „physical school.”

More than 70% of schools reopened Monday, but 100,000 pupils enrolled at about 260 schools will continue learning exclusively online in areas where there are more than 3 Covid-19 infections per 1,000 inhabitants, the education ministry said.

Not all pupils have access to laptops either.  Education Minister Monica Anisie said on the eve of schools reopening that almost 90% of pupils who learn online had laptops or other electronic devices, either their own or or provided by local authorities.

The education ministry has promised 250,000 electronic devices, but Declic, a non-governmental civic group, says that only 80,000 have been purchased so far.

The pandemic put a damper on the usual festivities. Some parents eschewed the usual bunch of flowers that are traditionally given to teachers, and most politicians stayed away from the ceremonies.

Romania holds local elections in less than two weeks, and Bucharest Mayor Gabriela Firea and her husband Florin Pandele, also a mayor, who are both running for reelection, posted pictures with their sons in a classroom on social media.

The images were later removed after the pair were criticized for not respecting a ban on parents entering classrooms and for not wearing masks.

Covid-19 cases remain high in Romania, with 1,109 new infections reported on Monday bringing the total to 103,495 and authorities are wary of fueling panic about rising cases.

Even if most politcians gave the new school year a miss, there was a protest outside the education ministry on Monday morning. Pupils and education trade unions waved flying pig balloons to express dissatisfaction about the way electronic devices have been distributed to less well-off students.

Declic said that 900,000 pupils hadn’t had access to education during the state of emergency.

Pupils at another 5,000 schools will have a hybrid system of online and classes in areas where there are higher than average cases. Teachers will be required to wear face coverings during classes.

But the majority of schools, almost 12,423 facilities reopened on Monday, even if it wasn’t school as usual.

“Even if today we start a school year that is different to what we’re used to, enthusiasm, impatience and joy of coming back to school,” are the same, the president said.

“We are witnessing a situation that a few months ago would have only been possible in books and films,” Mr. Iohannis added. “Until we manage to defeat this virus which has changed the way we live, we will have to respect rules a few special measures, designed not to jeopardize your health (or that) of your loved ones.”

“But I have great confidence in your and together we will get through this!”

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