A Cristal University student disinfects classrooms before it reopens on June 15. (Photo: Thomas Ora/UCA News)
Schools and universities in Timor-Leste will reopen next week after being closed for more than two months due to the coronavirus pandemic.
The government allowed churches and commercial centers to resume operations at the end of May after no new cases were reported for several weeks, and now schools are scheduled to restart on June 15.
However, Health Minister Odete Maria Freitas Belo said they must abide by Covid-19 health protocols.
“The safety, security and happiness of children must be the top priority. Students have to wear a mask. Each school has to prepare hand-washing facilities and ensure physical distancing,” she said, adding that schools not prepared to follow health standards should not reopen.
The Cristal Foundation, which manages six Catholic schools from elementary to university level, said its schools were ready to reopen.
Salesian Father Manuel Pinto said Catholic schools must set a good example in applying health protocols.
“Teachers must be good shepherds to students in delivering education amidst the Covid-19 pandemic,” said Father Pinto, the spiritual director of the Cristal schools.
The foundation’s president, Agostinho dos Santos Goncalves, said he had asked school principals to ensure that students and teachers wear masks, wash their hands and maintain physical distancing.
“We have prepared hand-washing facilities and will take the temperatures of students. The first thing we will do is disinfect school properties,” said Goncalves, adding that masks were donated by a German-based non-profit group.
“Each classroom will have only 20 students,” he said.
Jesuit Father Roberto Maaghop Boholst, director of St. Ignatius of Loyola College in Kasait, 15 kilometers west of Dili, said his school was also ready to restart lessons.
The Filipino priest said the teachers and staff had been making preparations for the last two weeks.
Apart from providing masks and hand sanitizers for students, the students would be made to wash their hands at the school gates.
“We want to ensure that as soon as the students get off the bus they wash their hands with soap,” he told UCA News. “Students who don’t wear masks will be barred from entering the school.”
The school has 746 students served by 38 teachers — including priests — and 17 staff.
He said students will be sat at least one meter apart in classroom but admitted “ it will be a bit difficult to keep them apart outside classrooms.”
One obstacle to some schools reopening could be a shortage of face masks.
Youth and Sports Minister Dulce de Jesus Soares said more than 940 elementary and junior high schools need masks.
He said the ministry was trying to address the shortfall and had distributed 15,000 masks donated by the US embassay to schools in five districts in the western part of the country.
“Next, we will distribute 25,000 masks donated by the Australian government to schools in the eastern part of the country,” he said.
Sister Maria Helmi Dhema of the Sisters of St. Francis of the Martyr St. George, who heads the St. Bonaventure School Foundation in Natarbora in Manatuto district, 134 kilometers east of Dili, said the school was also struggling to provide masks for its 338 students.
“Parents are making masks for the students,” the nun told UCA News on June 7, adding she was confident the school would be allowed to reopen.
The school will make sure social distancing is followed by allowing only 10 students in small rooms and 15-20 in much bigger classrooms, she said.
Timor-Leste has more than 1,800 schools from elementary to senior high levels.