On 17 October Egypt’s 23 million school students are scheduled to begin a new academic year. Until then, however, students will be going to school on an irregular basis to catch up on any curricula they have missed when the academic year was cut short by the coronavirus.
The Ministry of Education has prepared a plan to allow schools, closed since March on the back of the coronavirus pandemic, to reopen safely.
Government schools that do not yet have a functioning IT infrastructure will operate a two-shift system, one in the morning, the second in the afternoon, to prevent overcrowding. School teachers, students and workers will be required to wear face masks and follow precautionary measures throughout the school day. Government schools that are equipped with the necessary IT infrastructure will move the bulk of classes online, with pupils attending classrooms just twice a week.
On 8 September, Minister of Education Tarek Shawki announced the general outline of the new academic year in a video press conference. Shawki announced that the two days per week rule will apply to students from kindergarten to grade three, from grade four to six, and grades seven to nine. Grades 10 to 12 will, wherever it is possible, be schooled mostly online.
He added that private schools will be free to choose between allowing students on their premises two days a week and conducting remaining classes online, or conducting all classes online. Practical subjects that demand the students’ physical presence will not be affected by the new rules.
“Schools will take attendance, and students’ school work will be calculated within their general grades. The curriculum for students from grade four to 12 will be aired on educational TV channels,” said the minister.
The minister noted that the ministry has already uploaded all curricula and they are available online for free. “Students who want further explanation or are after in-depth information will have access to more material in return for a fee. This will help put an end to private lessons,” Shawki said.
Ministry of Education Spokesperson Mahmoud Hassouna stressed that the entire school day, starting from the moment pupils board school buses, will be structured in a way that minimises the possibility of Covid-19 transmission. The ministry’s plans, he said, are based on the principles of physical distancing, good ventilation, periodic disinfection, disease monitoring and the availability of PPE, and will include raising awareness among students and teachers.
The two shifts will allow class sizes to be reduced, with each class comprising a maximum of 20 pupils.
Parents will be expected to ensure their children wash their hands with soap and water before going to school, provide face masks and, because all school canteens will be closed, said Reda Hegazi, deputy to the minister of education.
On school buses pupils will be required to sit apart, with every other seat left empty. The buses will be sterilised before pupils board and after they alight.
“Any student with flu or Covid-19 symptoms should not be sent to school. Students who take public transport to school must wear face masks and clean their hands with disinfectant or soap before entering school,” said Hegazi.
In addition, anyone entering school will be thermally screened.
During the first week of the academic year classes will be held to raise awareness among pupils and staff on the proper way to wash hands, wear face masks, close faucets and maintain an appropriate distance when queuing.
Break times will be staggered to prevent crowding, with students divided into two or three groups. Schools will also be required to designate a dedicated quarantine room should anyone develop symptoms. Floors and surfaces will be routinely cleaned twice a day with water and chlorine. Sports activities will continue providing they preclude physical contact between students.
Administrative meetings for teachers and other school staff must take place in the open air, or be conducted online.
Complaining that “to work two shifts almost every day to teach different school grades is a tough prospect for teachers,” Arabic language teacher Mohamed Ibrahim said, adding the ministry’s plans came as a surprise to him and his colleagues.
It is not just teachers who worry about the logistics of a two-shift system. Samar Mahmoud, a nurse and a mother of four, is concerned about how her children will get to and from school. “I used to take all of my children to their schools on my way to work. Now what am I supposed to do if my children go to school in two different shifts? I can take the morning shift children to school but what about the afternoon shift children? Who will take them,” she asks.
Elham Tabarak, a single working mother of three, is also worried. “I don’t know how I will be able to organise the shifts, how I will be able to get the children to school and then collect them, and I worry about scheduling study times, and homework, when they are at home.
Rather than a hybrid, two-day, two-shift system, Tabarak would “prefer everything to be conducted online until things can get back to normal”.
But online classes bring their own problems. Mona Mohamed, a working mother of two, complains that during the last term she had a hard time convincing her children to sit for their online classes. “It was,” she says, “a disaster”.
“The younger children cry because they can hear but cannot see their classmates, and then cry some more because they raise their hands but do not get called because their teacher cannot see them.
“Last year, my youngest’s second grade teacher was often on the verge of tears and used to end her classes early. My seventh grade was in tears, and felt that she’d never be able to learn anything. The whole process was incredibly emotionally draining.”
*A version of this article appears in print in the 10 September, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly