770 Greek schools occupied by students fighting government neglect of COVID-19 safety measures

Nathan Czapnik, is a member of the YCL’s London District 

For over a week, student-led school occupations have erupted around Greece as a response to the government’s disregard of safety measures for students and education staff in wake of the reopening of schools. 

On Wednesday 30th September, it was reported that Greece had reached its second highest spike in daily infections since the pandemic began, reaching 416 new cases and a total of five fatalities in the space of 24 hours.

Despite the government’s decision on Tuesday 29th September to close 150 schools due to outbreaks, this was a minute percentage of schools, with there being 3,169 secondary schools in Greece alone. 

Greece’s conservative New Democracy government has been insistent on the reopening of the economy, with schools being no exception.

However, this has had greatly negative implications for the national infection rate and by Wednesday 23rd September (8 days after the reopening of schools) coronavirus tests showed that 50 students, 16 teachers and a support worker tested positive for the virus, with the real school infection status thought to be much higher. 

Despite these outbreaks, safety measures apart from the occasional closure have been zero-to-none and have left both students, teachers and other staff members alike at risk of becoming infected. 

As a result of the New Democracy government’s neglect, protests alongside the occupations have commenced around Greece. 

With school occupations reaching more than 200 last Friday, yesterday the Greek newspaper Kathimerini stated that there has now been a total of 770 student occupations of schools (a fifth of the nation’s secondary schools), happening across 35 towns and cities.

The demands of the student occupations and protests are for a limiting of classroom sizes from 25 to 15, a hiring of extra teachers to make up for the proposed splitting of lessons, a mandatory social distancing enforcement of at least 1.5 meters and also for the government to make it compulsory for people in schools to wear masks. 

The demand for extra teachers particularly brings with it a political message. Over the last decade, Greece has lost 20,000 education staff members after austerity cuts, slashing 27 percent of the education budget. 

Furthermore, the austerity cuts have meant that there have also been mass national cuts to permanent cleaning staff job numbers at schools.

To fund the hiring of extra staff in education, the students demand that the government should shift the increased expenditure on the Greek military to the education and healthcare sectors. 

Much of the Greek Press has negatively portrayed the occupations and have claimed that the students are occupying the schools as a means of skipping lessons when in reality they are arguing for a safer educational environment. 

Yesterday, protests took place across Greece in protest to the government’s continued lack in implementing safety measures. 

In Athens, the protests were particularly heated and police ended up firing tear gas at protesters. Athens alone had hundreds of protest attendees. 

The brutal police force at the protests was to be expected, as during the school occupations, students had been singled out and arrested and police had also threatened teachers and student parents actively supporting the occupations outside of the school gates. 

Yesterday’s protests were backed by the trade union Federation of Secondary School Teachers (OLME) who themselves called for a partial strike of their union members between 11am until 2pm so their members could attend the protests.

Yesterday also, the Education Minister Niki Kerameus announced that schools will now be closed and online classes will instead begin to commence. 

As a punishment for students of schools that had been occupied, they will have to take additional classes for the studies they missed, including during weekends and holiday time. 

Not meeting the students’ demands and punishing anyone linked to occupation, the government is actively working against the interests of many students and educational staff. 

In addition, the New Democracy government claimed that the occupations were orchestrated by the Communist Party of Greece (KKE) and former ruling party Syrzia, demonising the left as a means of justifying their own neglect for the health and safety of students and those working within education. 

In response to Greece’s Education Minister Kerameus and today’s protests, the KKE say: 

“Today’s magnificent, mathematical demonstrations throughout Greece have emphatically shown that terrorism and the government’s threats have fallen on deaf ears!” 

“It would do well – even now – to satisfy the rightful demands of the pupils and stop blackmailing them with punitive measures!”

“The government, by attacking the pupils who are claiming the obvious, that is, open and safe schools with all the measures to protect their health, so that the education process can be carried out without hindrance, only obstructs them even further.”

“”Absence” and “bad behavior”, which the government wants to charge to the thousands of students fighting, Minister of Education Niki Kerameus has long called.” 

“On the other hand, with the closure of 400 departments and classes of coronavirus cases, the shortages of teachers and carers in schools, supernumerary classes and cage schools.”

“The students are right and everybody knows it! They didn’t want to hear them well today!”

Nathan Czapnik

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