As Russian children returned to school this week after a six-month break, there was little sign of masks or physical distancing but plenty of evidence of other measures to try to keep COVID-19 out of the country’s classrooms.
“We’re so glad that they are back to school in a more traditional format and not how it was in March and April,” parent Sergei Yerofeev told CBC News as he waited proudly with his five-year-old son Sasha at the school in Balashikha, a bedroom community about 30 kilometres outside Moscow.
Like many other countries, Russia stopped classroom learning in March as coronavirus cases increased, leaving kids to take their classes long-distance.
CBC News asked to visit the school to survey the COVID-19 precautions brought in by Russia’s government and administrators agreed.
The first day of classe is known as Den Znanii or “Day of Knowledge” and is meant to be a celebration of education.
With the kids carrying plentiful flowers for their teachers and their desks decorated in balloons, parents voiced relief that even in the midst of a pandemic, some traditions and ceremonies had not been sacrificed in the battle against COVID-19.
“We’re optimistic,” said Yerofeev about having children back together again safely in a school setting. “I don’t feel worried.”
Even though many educators outside Russia are urging children to avoid touching or direct contact with one another, at the BalashikhanSchool, the new Grade 1 students held hands and walked in through the building’s front doors together.
Whereas many Canadian provinces have opted for mask use, smaller groupings in classrooms and maximized physical distancing, Russia has stressed different priorities.
Its formula relies on the mass testing of school employees, daily temperature checks and intensive handwashing for everyone.
Start times for students have been staggered to avoid crowds at entrances and kids who usually rotate between classrooms will instead remain in one spot and have teachers come to them.
“Our authorities are taking all necessary precautions to avoid the spread of the virus in the school. I think it’s quite safe,” English teacher Elena Arkhipova told CBC.
Health authorities in Moscow say in the weeks leading up to the start of classes, they have tested more than 180,000 teachers and support staff who work in the city’s vast school system , with roughly three per cent — or 5,500 —testing positive. Those who did were sent home.
Arkhipova said the numbers suggest students are at very low risk of contracting COVID-19 from teachers — and it also makes mask wearing unnecessary.
“It’s quite uncomfortable for a teacher to wear a mask, and for the students. All the teachers have been tested and don’t have the disease,” said Arkhipova.
The Balashikha school has installed sophisticated temperature screening devices near the front door, much like what many airports now use to check passengers. As the children walk inside, cameras take their pictures and a thermometer scans their temperature. The results are displayed on a monitor for security staff.
A team of support workers also keeps handheld devices as a backup.
Russia’s state TV Channel One reported that schools will have to closely monitor how the new system is working and report back on any problems.
“Schools will enter into the database data on how children feel,” said a posting on the channel’s website. “This will allow you to get a real picture and track the dynamics of the spread of viral diseases.”
WATCH: A teacher talks about efforts to provide safe conditions in school:
Parents and students who were seeing the new measures for the first time this week appeared to be generally supportive.
“I think [COVID-19] will just bypass us,” said parent Victoria Veprentsev.
“If there is a second wave, then we’ll put the masks back on,” said Miron Yurin, who’s starting Grade 9. “But right now everything is OK.”
Russia officially passed one million coronavirus cases earlier this week — the fourth-largest tally in the world. However, official government numbers suggest the rate of infections is about half of what it was at its peak in the late spring.
Still, roughly 5,000 people a day continue to test positive, according to the national health agency. Many Western observers question the Russian statistics, however, noting the country’s death count of 17,400 is substantially lower than most European countries.
President Vladimir Putin kicked off the learning on Tuesday in a teleconference call where he made only a passing reference to the educational challenges posed by COVID-19.
“These restrictions are necessary to protect your health and the health of others around you — your grandparents, parents and everybody at school and at home,” said a transcript of Putin’s remarks provided by the Kremlin.
He then went on to speak at length about the need to learn about Russian victories in the Second War War, or what Russians refer to as the Great Patriotic War.
Russia’s government is also counting on its much-hyped coronavirus vaccine — dubbed Sputnik V — to ensure classrooms around the vast country remain open.
The first batch of mass inoculations involving up to 40,000 people will start later this month as part a Phase 3 trial, according to Health Minister Mikhail Murashko, even as immunologists outside the country openly question whether the vaccine will actually work.
So far, it’s only been tested on a few dozen patients and the Gamaleya Research Institute, which is developing the vaccine, has yet to publish its findings in-peer reviewed publications.
Dmitry Belousov, the director of the Balashikha school, acknowledged some teachers have concerns about the vaccine but he expects most will take the injection in the end. The government insists taking the vaccine is voluntary but some teachers groups aren’t convinced of that.
“We conducted a survey of employees — it was an informal conversation and I saw that there are doubts,” Belousov told CBC.
“If you take the risk of taking the a vaccine or staying alive, it is better to insure yourself. I believe that this is a certain kind of insurance.”
Parents appeared equally conflicted.
“Well, to be honest of course it’s scary,” said Alexander Ryzhkov, who has a daughter in Grade 7. “We don’t know what kind of vaccine this really is.”