Seventh graders gather in the school yard in Debed. To limit the risk of infection, students are not allowed to enter the building until 9:15 in the morning, fifteen minutes before the start of classes.

By Thomas Toghramadjian

Special to the Mirror-Spectator

DEBED — In ordinary times, the start of classes at Debed Secondary School in the province of Lori means a day of celebration, with speeches, recitations, performances and songs. On Tuesday, September 15, the students who came in their best clothes for the first day of classes observed a much less familiar ceremony — standing in masks, one and a half meters apart on red lines freshly painted in the schoolyard, waiting to have their temperature taken by the school health inspector.

After closing schools nationwide in early March and weathering a serious rise in coronavirus cases over the summer, the government of Armenia has elected to resume in-person education for the 2020-2021 academic year. Education Minister Arayik Harutyunyan announced in August that schools would open on September 14, and classes for all grades would begin the following day, two weeks later than the traditional September 1 start date.

Armenia’s school reopening puts it on a course ahead of its Transcaucasian neighbors. In-person classes in Azerbaijan are set to resume only in October, while Georgia, facing its first major outbreak after successfully containing the virus for most of the year, has also postponed its scheduled reopening.

The return to school comes with a long list of precautionary measures laid out in a 19-page memo issued by the Ministry of Education. Full-time mask-wearing, temperature checks, and regular hand sanitizing are mandatory for school staff and students of all ages. No class is allowed to exceed 20 students, and every grade is to remain in a single room over the course of the day, including during breaks between lessons. The school day has been shortened to a maximum of six periods between 40 and 50 minutes long, as opposed to the usual eight. All extracurricular groups and after-hours gatherings in school buildings have been suspended. School lunches (generally provided to students up until fourth grade) have been suspended, along with the usual 15-minute afternoon break. To accommodate the shortened semester and school day, the academic week has been extended to six days. While teachers may not be required to come into school so frequently, students across Armenia will have only Sundays free until the end of the semester this December.

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Inside classrooms, teachers and students are struggling to adjust to new regulations. Students may no longer use workbooks, as all written assignments must be done on individually distributed handouts and teachers are not allowed to return graded work to students. In cases where written feedback is necessary, the guidelines recommend distributing photocopies — a tall order, given the expense and difficulty of access to printers in smaller communities. It is common practice in Armenian schools to call students to the blackboard, to review homework or demonstrate understanding of a lesson. Under the new regulations, this is not allowed.

A classroom arranged for social distancing. According to new government regulations students must sit alone at desks positioned at least 1.5 meters apart.

Shushan Avetisyan, an English teacher in the village of Kalanavan, cited limits on written assignments and group work as challenges to her lesson process, but particularly emphasized the pressure the new rules put on students themselves. “It’s not pleasant for them to wear masks, and all of the other regulations are unfamiliar to them too. Even during breaks, students basically must always stay in the classroom.” On the whole, however, Avetisyan believes that her in-person classes have been “unambiguously more effective” than last semester’s distance learning, and described the prevailing mood in the Kalanavan village school as “peaceful and workmanlike.”

Some teachers have privately expressed doubt that these measures provide more than cosmetic protection. Especially in smaller communities, where classmates tend to be in close proximity without masks outside of school hours, the benefit of strict classroom practices is open to doubt. The perceived discrepancy between the extent of formal precautions and their practical utility is perhaps best embodied by the new digital infrared thermometers provided by the government as a first line of defense at the school door. While students in Debed have continued to queue up for temperature checks in the morning, the thermometer readings have mostly fallen between 29 to 35 degrees Celsius. (Normal human body temperature is 37 Celsius). The apparent unreliability of the government-issued thermometers has left school staff in doubt of what steps to take in cases where a high temperature is registered.

The hallways of Debed Secondary School, usually bustling before the first morning bell, stand empty —all students are required to remain in their respective classrooms from the time they enter the school until the time they leave.

Potential consequences for failure to comply with anti-disease measures are severe. In cases of violation, school directors may face fines up to 300,000 drams — more than a month’s salary — and a school may be closed for two weeks.

Teachers at the Debed Secondary School have been apprised that a police officer has been stationed in the community to conduct random checks for compliance during the school day.

Given these circumstances, the fear of penalties is in some sense more immediate than fear of the virus itself. This is not to say that the danger of a new outbreak has receded from view, as Debed School director Zaven Khachatryan made clear at a staff meeting on September 15.

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“We ought to comport ourselves as though we are in a war,” he said. “We must remember, and continually remind our students, that in the present situation one moment of carelessness may cause great harm to many people.”

Students in Debed are likewise doing their part. The majority have been diligent about wearing their masks and remaining at their desks even during breaks, and have even taken opportunities to remind teachers of social-distancing rules.

While the challenges associated with a return to in-person schooling are immense, teachers and students widely agree on one count — considering the alternatives, it is well worth a try. “Having lessons in the school building, even within severe limits, is simply more effective than teaching online” said Ashot Balyan, a geography teacher in the village of Nor Khachakap in Lori. For students who struggled to keep up with online coursework, the return to in-person classes is also a welcome change. “It was hard not to fall behind, especially for the kids without a good phone,” said eleventh-grader Artur Matinyan. “I hope they don’t close the schools again.”

Fourth grader Suren Poghosyan is happy for the return to school as well, particularly because it gives him more time with his friends. “When the school was closed we were a bit cut off from each other,” he said. “Now we see each other more.”

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