Updated 6.10pm with PN statement

Teachers should “show courage” and go to work during the pandemic, as other professions had done successfully by taking precautionary measures, Education Minister Owen Bonnici said.

The government on Friday closed ranks in the face of unions’ opposition to re-opening schools, with Health Minister Chris Fearne earlier saying that keeping them closed would have dire consequences on the lives of an entire generation.

Both teachers’ unions, the MUT and UPE, are against reopening just yet given the sharp rise of COVID-19 cases over the past few weeks.

But asked by Times of Malta to address the concerns of parents and educators, Bonnici on Friday said it was imperative that students continue on their education journey.

“I understand that some people are worried because of the nature of the classroom environment and educators are spending a considerable number of hours with children,” he said.

'I believe the best education our children can get is in the classroom': Owen Bonnici. Video: Jessica Arena

“But I want to encourage our educators to look at workers from other industries that kept on going, taking precautions and protecting each other.

“On our part, we have taken all the measures that we saw fit to take. Schools are prepared and are implementing all the recommendations made by the Health Department,” Bonnici added.

“I really do want our educators to show courage, because I believe the best education our children can get is in the classroom.”

He said discussions were ongoing and the Education Department was committed to refining its response and minimising the risks.

“Life must go on with the appropriate mitigation measures in place,” Bonnici said, when asked about concerns regarding vulnerable educators and students, as well as children spending time with vulnerable grandparents.

“Children and grandparents alike are living in the community, they go out, they go shopping. We live in a society where we are constantly interacting socially,” Bonnici said.

“Our advice is to continue social distancing and take measures to minimise the spread of the virus. But life goes on and we have to do everything possible to get on with it, which includes education.”

'Stop pointing fingers' - MUT

The MUT took exception to Bonnici's statements. 

"Instead of pointing the finger at educators, the minister should come out of the bubble he keeps offering reassurances about and take a look at the pandemic and its risks to educators, students and their families," it said in a statement on Saturday. 

"Teachers are willing to continue changing their work methods in these extraordinary times but not in a situation in which the pandemic is not being controlled". 

Meanwhile, the Nationalist Party said the minister's words had damaged the teaching profession and that the very late start to preparations had done nothing to ease concerns. 

"The minister is acting insolently with regard to teachers and is completely cut off from the reality in classrooms. His lack of preparation and false optimism could be a real danger to teachers and students," education spokesman Clyde Puli said.

Fearne's push for schools to open

Fielding questions during an earlier press conference, Fearne said it was “crucial” that students received an education as they could not afford to miss out on another year of schooling.

“We are doing our utmost to ensure students are safe and that all the measures are in place at schools,” he said.

However, the Secretariat for Catholic Education, speaking on behalf of Church schools, said increased community transmission of COVID-19 may jeopardise the safe reopening of schools as scheduled.

“Church schools insist that should schools not be in a position to physically open, the scholastic year still needs to commence from the date established by each respective school, according to their timetable, offering online lessons which will be live-streamed or recorded, and given by educators from their schools,” a statement said.

“Church schools appeal for all measures to be taken by public authorities and for everyone’s cooperation to attain a level of safety which would enable schools to physically open as soon as possible. This would be in the best interest of all students and of the education system.”

Last month, the association representing independent schools had stressed the importance of bringing the R-factor down before opening.

And the association representing parents of state school children this week questioned whether it would be premature to open schools at the end of the month.

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