Many parents and teachers are blaming the Ministry of Education and Technical Education for allowing international schools to reopen in Egypt by mid-September despite fears of a second wave of Covid-19. Their concern is that the reopening would create a fertile ground that would possibly fuel a new wave of coronavirus infections among school students, parents and teachers.
Increased transmission is the main fear of Sherine Niazi, a business owner and mother of a young boy who will start his academic year online on 1 September. According to Niazi, her son who is in grade one, will eventually have to go to school twice a week and will study online for the rest of the week. “I can’t understand why students have to go back to school. It’s better for them to study online during the first term, at least, until matters become clearer regarding a second wave of Covid-19,” said Niazi, adding it was meaningless to let students return twice a week and stay at home for the rest of the week. “They can contract the virus during any of those two days.”
Reham Ahmed, a working mother of two children said her school informed her that the new academic year, due to have started 2 September, had been postponed until 15 September to comply with regulations set by the Ministry of Education and Technical Education which instructed all international schools not to begin the academic year before mid-September.
Once school begins, Ahmed’s children will go to school once a week and will continue the remaining school days at home where they will be studying online. “This system is very convenient and safe for me and my children. The school is very well organised. They have a schedule for everything. They use their platform efficiently, as if the students are physically in school. Lessons are being explained, they sit for exams, and attendance is taken, so why would I object,” asked Ahmed. “The only worrying thing is the day which they will have to go to school. I believe they should cancel that,” added Ahmed.
Hoda Suleiman, headmistress of an international school that will have children physically attend on a daily basis, told Al-Ahram Weekly that the school administration had drawn up certain regulations in order to protect the students’ health. Students will be divided into two groups. The first group will go to school from 8am to 11am while the second group will attend from 11.30am to 2.30pm.
There will be no morning queues, the school canteen will be closed, and students will not be allowed to enter school without face masks and sanitisers. Students will not be allowed to bring junk food, and the numbers of students will be reduced by half. “We will have around 10-15 students in a classroom in order to abide by social distancing rules for the sake of our students’ health,” Suleiman added.
For schools that do not have an international curricula, the academic year does not begin before 17 October. The ministry delayed the start of the academic year due to an expected second wave of the coronavirus. “The final back-to-school plan will be announced by the beginning of next month,” said Mahmoud Hassouna, the ministry’s spokesman. International schools need not abide by the return date but are not allowed to begin before 15 September, Hassouna said. “Schools which want to start before that date can do so online only.”
According to Hassouna, the Ministry of Education agreed with the Ministry of Health to prepare guidelines to help students, school staff and parents combat infectious diseases, especially Covid-19. A booklet will include hygienic measures that should be adopted to ensure the safety of students, school employees, and visitors. “It was also agreed to establish a central operations room that electronically connects the database of the two ministries, so that cases are monitored and followed up on in order to take the necessary preventive measures,” Hassouna added.
Education expert Mohamed Salah told the Weekly he opposed any form of physical presence at schools for the time being. “The academic year is scheduled to start in the second half of October while vaccines are not expected to be available in the market before the end of November, so why the uncalculated risk,” Salah asked. Salah said he did not believe any of the proposed restrictions by schools were enough to protect against the virus, especially with children in primary and middle school.
According to Salah, the ministry’s success in holding the Thanaweya Amma, or 12th grade high school exams, cannot be applied generally. “Students should start going to school by the beginning of the second term, not now,” argued Salah.
The pandemic might affect thousands of children as the density of some classes in villages and suburbs reaches more than 80 students a class, Salah pointed out. “Thousands of children will infect thousands of families, and thousands of families will infect thousands of others. This is what the Ministry of Health warned against at the beginning of the crisis. The situation has not changed.”
*A version of this article appears in print in the 27 August, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the title: Why the rush?