AP PHOTOS: Greece puts faith in online schooling

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Teacher Rania Koukli prepares to record lessons that are broadcast on public television, at an elementary school in Athens, Wednesday, Nov. 18, 2020. Most other European countries have vowed to keep schools open, but the pandemic has hit Greece hard for the first time in recent weeks following a successful lockdown in the spring, overwhelming hospitals in parts of the country. State television is making and broadcasting lessons, while teachers sit in empty classrooms talking to remote students. Despite some problems, they say it keeps children in touch with their schools. (AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis)

ATHENS – There’s just 10 minutes left to come up with a story using items scattered on the prep table: Leaves and ferns from the schoolyard, scissor-cut scraps of colored paper, a glue stick, and two hand puppets — a long-tailed squirrel and a blue hedgehog.

When class begins, two teachers put on raspy play-voices and let the puppets, Jo the hedgehog and Joo the squirrel, greet their preschool students — except the desks in front of them are all empty.

As European governments double down on restrictions, Greece has taken the additional step of moving all school and university tuition to remote classrooms to cope with an alarming rise of COVID-19 infections.

Jo and Joo, hovering over a laptop camera, bob to music and welcome 4-year-olds as they appear onscreen: “Hello Marios!”...“Oh Theodora, you have the Christmas tree up already.” Finishing each other’s sentences: “There is this virus that has closed all the schools. But we can keep playing and learning new things.”

As part of a pre-Christmas lockdown, schooling here is being held live online with teachers sitting in closed classrooms or broadcasting on state television. The shutdown expanded to all school grades on Nov. 16.

“We’re trying to keep everyone in touch, the kids with their teachers and the kids with each other,” says Ioanna Kabouri, principal at the preschool in the mixed-income Halandri area, north of Athens.

“People can’t go outside so we use materials that children can find around the house or nearby, like making things like collages with leaves.”

The priority for most European Union governments has been to keep schools running through the winter, typically using online material only for middle-schoolers or to help reduce crowding.