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14th Jul 2021

Malta closes ELT schools following rapid growth in COVID cases

Short on time? Here are the highlights:
  • The Maltese government has announced that all English language schools in the country will be closed on 14 July and until further notice
  • The closure is part of a broader package of public health measures introduced in response to a recent spike in COVID cases

The number of COVID cases in Malta has surged within the last month, climbing from just 23 active cases on 21 June to roughly 1,000 as of 14 July. This is the highest level of COVID infection since the previous wave of cases in March 2021, and it has prompted a number of new public health measures on the part of government.

In a 9 July press conference Deputy Prime Minister and Health Minister Chris Fearne said that the cases were largely traced to unvaccinated foreign travellers. He noted as well that cases had been reported at nine different English language schools in Malta.

“In recent days, the majority of new cases were related to people who came from abroad or Maltese who went abroad and came back. Most are those unvaccinated tourists,” he added. “A large number of cases also come from English schools.”

Speaking at the same briefing, Malta's Chief Public Health Officer, Charmaine Gauci, said that most of the new cases were people aged between 15 and 30 years old.

As a result the Deputy Prime Minister announced the following measures to come into effect as of 14 July 2021.

  • Foreign visitors will only be permitted to enter Malta if they are fully vaccinated at least 14 days before arrival. Further, Malta will accept only vaccination certificates from the European Union and UK. The only exception will be children aged 12 or under, who are required to present negative PCR tests and expected to travel with a vaccinated adult. “We will be the first country in Europe to take this step,” said Minister Fearne. Complete details on the current travel restrictions are available here.
  • All English language schools will be closed until further notice.

The move comes as a shock to the Malta's ELT sector, where schools had been permitted to reopen since 1 June and where there was optimism for the key summer season ahead.

“This decision will have an unquantifiable effect on Malta’s reputation,” said Rebecca Bonnici, CEO of BELS English Language Schools, speaking to the Times of Malta. “We got the numbers here because we hung on and worked hard to attract people and because England and Ireland were closed to language learning. This will effectively wipe out the ELT sector in Malta.”

“The industry has been on its knees for 18 months and when the first problem came along the decision was to shut schools," added Andrew Mangion, CEO at EC English Language Centres. “What we have been seeking to do from day one is to work and collaborate with the government in the interest of the country and the industry…This recent announcement has left us feeling scapegoated."

In statements published in the Maltese press, FELTOM (the Federation of English Language Teaching Organisations Malta) expressed the sector's shock and frustration at the move, in particular the “lack of direction from government considering the thousands of clients already on the island currently left with no guidance.”

“This sudden unilateral decision by the Government sends out a message that a cluster that did not emerge from any breach of protocols by operators within their schools, can lead to such disproportionate and extreme measures," said FELTOM.

“We respect the decision of Government to restrict entry to Malta to fully vaccinated persons. However, we feel that the Government has not allowed adequate time to the affected stakeholders to manage this sudden reversal of policies for all tourism. We feel that this is a drastic reaction reached by the Government without proper consultation with the stakeholders of the consequences and implications on the ELT Schools, its employees, its students (present and future) and all the stakeholders. Even with fully vaccinated tourists we can expect that similar clusters will occur in hotels and other tourist establishments and we ask to what extent will Government take similar measures to close these operators.”

“Our member schools have, under the constant direction of, and collaboration with, the Public Health, implemented and followed the rules and guidelines as outlined by the authorities. Rest assured that the ELT Schools have invested enormous resources in terms of time, money, manpower and materials so that their schools operate within the parameters of these guidelines. Subsequently, while the schools have impressed on their employees and students the importance of adhering to the measures, including mask wearing and social distancing while in public, the reinforcement of such measures by the government has been barely visible, bearing in mind that it is only government that has the authority to enforce such measures. The closure of all ELT schools is not warranted especially as the Government is now going to restrict entry to Malta to fully vaccinated persons in line with EU issued certificates. Schools should be allowed to remain open like all other public institutions to these vaccinated visitors. Most schools have actually done this successfully in the last 15 months or so without an increase in COVID cases in Malta.”

FELTOM representatives met with government officials on 13 July to make a number of proposals as to how schools could continue to operate this summer, and especially that vaccinated adult learners be allowed to continue their studies face-to-face without delay. At this writing, there has been no response from government to those proposals.

FELTOM reports that there are now 2,000 ELT sector jobs at stake as member schools face losses estimated at €36 million arising from a reported 15,000 booking cancellations since Minister Fearne's announcement less than a week ago.

For additional background, please see:

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