Tensions growing over student sit-ins, as ministry gets tough on protesters

Tensions growing over student sit-ins, as ministry gets tough on protesters

Pupils whose schools are under occupation amid the current wave of sit-ins protesting the government’s response to the coronavirus pandemic among other things will have online lessons as of Thursday while those that don’t participate will be marked down as absent, Education Minister Niki Kerameus said on Wednesday as opposition parties expressed their support for the sit-in movement.

The move was seen as an attempt by the ministry to take a harder line on the sit-ins, which stand at around 770 nationwide, as pupils plan more street protests on Thursday for Athens and other major cities.

There is growing concern in the government, however, about the support of rival political parties for the sit-ins. After the Communist Party’s youth arm embraced the movement in mid-September, main opposition SYRIZA threw its official support behind the protesting pupils on Wednesday.

Apart from daily online classes which are to start from Thursday, pupils at schools currently under occupation will have additional classes on public holidays and weekends to catch up on lost lessons, Kerameus said. “Every position has the right to be aired, but dialogue happens with schools open,” Kerameus said.

The grievances being aired by the pupils range from concerns about overcrowding in classrooms or objections to the requirement for the mandatory use of face masks in schools to displeasure at the government’s plans to purchase French-made fighter jets or calls for more teachers. A key demand is for class numbers to be reduced from 25 to 15.

The ministry meanwhile described claims that the reopening of schools earlier this month has contributed to a recent spike in coronavirus infections as “fake news.” “After 15 days of schools operating, the cases recorded… come to 0.01 percent of pupils and 0.02 percent of teachers,” a ministry official said, adding that only 3 percent of public schools have more than 26 students in classes.

SYRIZA’s education department accused the government of “serious shortfalls and mistakes” in its response to the pandemic and defended the sit-in movement for “striving for open and safe schools.”

Government officials were scathing in their comments, with Development Minister Adonis Georgiadis accusing SYRIZA of being fixated on sit-ins, noting that classrooms in Switzerland, which has a higher rate of infections, routinely have more than 25 students.

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