By Leo Kendrick
Schools of all levels reopened yesterday (6 September) across Turkey. Cautious optimism at the reopening was tempered by concerns over precautions being taken, as well as the first appearance of the new “Mu” coronavirus variant within the country.
Following a meeting last week, Health and Education Ministers detailed precautionary measures to be taken as schools open their doors. A twice-weekly PCR testing requirement for unvaccinated teachers and a mask requirement for all individuals on school premises were the main provisions announced, in addition to investments in hygienic supplies, cleaning personnel, and the possibility of hybrid teaching for higher education.
Amidst optimism over the reopening, concerns remained about the Education Ministry’s ability to institute such measures and maintain safety in the classrooms. Speaking with Medyascope on Monday (6 September), chairwoman of Turkey’s Education and Science Workers’ Union Nejla Kurul expressed unease over the plan released by Health and Education Ministers, saying “There are not enough personnel to keep track of teachers’ vaccination records and PCR tests,” making reference to the requirement that teachers must be either fully vaccinated or submit negative PCR tests twice a week. Regarding the massive increase in testing that will necessitated by these requirements, Dr. Necmettin Ünal, an expert at Ankara University Faculty of Medicine, raised questions about testing capacity in an interview with Medyascope, saying “Everyday 200,000 more coronavirus tests will be added. Is this possible logistically? The first question is who will pay for it? Will teachers and personnel be able to afford this? These questions are important.”
As schools began their second day of classes this morning (7 September), Turkish Health Minister Fahrettin Koca announced that the country had recorded its first two cases of the new ‘Mu” variant. In his post on social media announcing detection of the new variant, the Health Minister reported that Delta and Delta Plus variants currently make up over 90% of active cases in Turkey. “Mu”, first detected in Colombia in January 2021, has since been reported in 39 countries. Existing vaccines are believed by experts to offer strong protection against the new variant.
Despite the ominous announcement of the new “Mu” variant at the beginning of the new school year, Monday saw Turkey’s vaccination age limit lowered to 12, a change welcomed by many educators and parents. The vaccine, previously available to the 15+ age group and those above 12 with chronic health conditions, will now be available to children 12 and older. This change comes as many experts have predicted a surge in child cases with the arrival face-to-face instruction. Speaking on the reopening of schools and the possibility of a new surge, Dr. Necmettin Ünal warned that the possibility of a significant increase in positive cases within the next 20 days is likely. Although younger individuals show fewer symptoms, Ünal stated that “These students have the potential to act as vectors and transmit coronavirus to others, namely their families.”
Monday also marked the beginning of stricter testing requirements for non-vaccinated individuals across Turkey. Starting Monday, a negative PCR test is required for inter-city travel on planes, buses, and trains, as well as for entry to closed spaces such as schools, cinemas, theaters, and concerts. These requirements apply to those who have not yet received both jabs. Vaccinated individuals, or those who can prove recovery from coronavirus, are exempt from these new requirements.
According to data from mid-August, 84% of teachers in Turkey have received at least one vaccine dose, while 77% are fully vaccinated. The Ministry of Health reports that 80.47% of eligible citizens have received at lease one jab, and 62.23% have received both as of Monday, September 6th.