Defying the 4th coronavirus wave: Egyptian students return to in-person classes after a prolonged hiatus

Mohamed Soliman , Sunday 10 Oct 2021

Millions of school and university students will begin physically attending classes for the first time in 18 months starting Saturday despite a recent surge in coronavirus in the pandemic's fourth wave.

Students wearing protective masks
Students wearing protective masks attend the first day at school, following months of closure due to the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in Cairo, Egypt October 17, 2020. (Reuters)

After adopting a virtual education system for the past year and a half, Egypt seeks to address the new wave differently. In the first three waves, lockdown and tighter measures were imposed.

"The entire world suffers from the coronavirus, [but] the educational process goes on," Education Minister Tarek Shawky said on TV last week.

As part of broader restrictive measures, schools and universities suspended in-person classes in March 2020, almost a month after detecting the first coronavirus case in Egypt. The government instead introduced a hybrid system of in-person and online classes the following year with optional attendance in an effort to contain the pandemic's subsequent waves.

Though many parents have felt the shortcomings of online learning over the past two years, they are still anxious about close contact and rooms' ventilation since all students and teaching staff will be showing up every day.

"Going back to classrooms is a proper decision," Ahmed Nassar, a father of a primary school pupil, told Ahram Online.

Nassar, who opposes online learning and supports the reopening of classrooms, is still wary of laxity in following the preventative measures, especially as the country is destined to see a peak in cases in the coming days.

The fourth wave is now driving up daily infection and death rates locally for the third consecutive month, with its peak expected in the coming weeks. Detected cases of the highly contagious Delta Plus have further mounted parents' worries.

In the previous academic year, Egypt had 25.3 million pre-university students and 3.3 million university students, according to Egypt's Central Agency for Public Mobilisation and Statistics (CAPMAS).

Schools and universities have launched health awareness campaigns to urge students, teaching staff, and workers to adhere to all precautions, including maintaining physical distance, wearing face masks, conducting periodic sterilisation, and taking entrants' temperatures. Universities also will depend on e-books instead of hard copy books.

Rana Mukhtar, a teacher at an international school, which reopened a month earlier than public and private schools, said all preventive measures are maintained, including sanitization and wearing face masks.

"We also avoid sharing materials and supplies," she added.

International schools have been gaining notoriety in Egypt in recent years, but they serve a smaller number of students, compared to public and private schools.

According to the state's statistical agency CAPMAS, the percentage of students enrolled in public schools reached 88.4% of the total number of students, compared to 11.6% in private schools during the 2019/2020 academic year.

Mukhtar indicated that maintaining precautions in classes of early childhood years has been challenging, though, as kids do not wear masks.

"It is really hard to keep masks on kids' faces… they cough and sneeze everywhere… We only make sure they are not feverish during school days. If they cough really bad, we send them to the doctor," Mukhtar told Aram Online.

The country has mandated coronavirus vaccination for all teaching staff, employees, and workers, as well as students who are 18 years or older.

The jury is still out on inoculating students under the age of 18. However, the health authorities are currently considering including high school students – who are younger than 18 years old – in the country's vaccination drive using the recently-received Pfizer vaccine shots.

"Primary and prep schools should apply precautions strictly since their students will not be vaccinated," Nassar stressed.

The health authorities also handed each educational facility an infrared device to monitor temperatures, with students having a fever of 38 degrees Celsius or higher to be transferred to designated isolation rooms.

This comes as schools and universities were ordered to implement a serious attendance tracking system for both students and teaching staff as of Saturday.

Dealing with the density inside educational halls will be a challenge as the country has over 20 million university and pre-university students, according to official estimates.

Schools and universities during the past three waves recorded poor attendance as most students have remained at home, with assignments being given online.

The country, according to Shawky, seeks to avoid dropping more parts of the curricula, as was the case last year due to the pandemic.

Online learning drawbacks

Relying on virtual classes has impeded interaction with teachers and negatively affected students' soft skills, according to many teachers and parents.

"Remote education is a very tricky system that does not live up to the quality of the traditional learning methods in terms of evaluating the students' level and performance," Nassar added.

"Teaching throughout the preceding three waves laid bare the drawbacks of online learning," Dina El-Azab, a secondary school teacher, told Ahram Online, adding, "technology has a major influence on many domains, but when it comes to education, both students and teachers feel perplexed."

El-Azab, who is a math teacher, highlighted that her laptop webcam does not allow her to closely follow students, saying, "I need to look at the pupils' eyes to see their light bulb moments to make sure they understand me… I need to make sure they are keeping on track by monitoring every step they take to complete a math problem."

The matter under the virtual classes, she added, is worsened when connectivity issues come up, especially amid heavy traffic on the local network in Egypt during the pandemic with thousands of Egyptian students having switched to e-learning.

Mukhtar also echoed El-Azab's point of view, saying "definitely face-to-face learning is richer with teaching techniques and resources."

"Plus, teaching in classrooms is also way better for early childhood years," she added.

Indeed, the education minister explained that online learning had a negative impact on the assimilation of students, especially younger generations who do not have the ability to deal with the Internet.

“We had to be keen on reducing losses for students," Shawky said.

He previously stressed that the digital and educational resources will be a complement to the educational process in schools and not an alternative to it, except in extreme necessity.

Shawky also stressed that the regularity of the educational process in schools is a “state decision” and came based on the recommendations of the Crisis Management Committee headed by the prime minister. “We seek a full-fledged academic year and avoid [the repercussions of] the coronavirus, and we will not cancel in-class education except in the worst circumstances,” the minister added.

Plan B on the table

Universities seem to be having alternative plans to handle any upcoming surge in COVID-19 cases, according to recent televised remarks by Higher Education Minister Khaled Abdel-Ghaffar.

"We always have an [alternative] plan… and we know when to move to a hybrid system in case there is a surge… but from our experience, the situation is getting better in Egypt," he commented on the likelihood of suspending the academic year in case the country witnessed a surge in cases.

He also played down the current fourth wave-driven infection rise saying, "it is a cautious increase."

As for schools, the education ministry already announced in a circular handed to all educational directorates countrywide steps to be taken in the event cases are detected in classrooms: 

- A class will be closed for 28 days in the case that more than one student tests positive for coronavirus in two weeks.

- A school will be closed for 28 days in the case two or more classes in the school are closed due to the spread of COVID-19. 

- A school complex will be shut down for the same period in case one of its schools is closed and then a class of another school in the same complex is closed.

- Schools in a village or city can be closed on orders of the governorate in the event of quarantining this village or city, and until the period of the quarantine is over. 

- Schools in a governorate may also be closed based on recommendations by the Crisis Mnagement Committee, for at least 28 days if required.

Health Minister Hala Zayed said the academic year, under any circumstances, would go on even if the country witnessed a surge in positive cases, arguing that the high vaccination turnout among students, workers, and employees in the education sector will be a helpful factor.

According to a government order, unvaccinated workers and students will not be allowed into workplaces and universities unless they are jabbed with at least one dose of a vaccine or provide proof of negative COVID-19 testing more than once a week.

Abdel-Ghaffar stated in late September that only vaccinated students will be allowed to live in university dorms.

Until last week, up to 70-80 percent of school staffers nationwide have already received the vaccine, while the rate in universities stands at 90 percent. As for university students, around 35 percent have also received jabs, Zayed said in a press conference last week.

In an attempt to intensify vaccinations, the health ministry has dedicated 270 converted youth centres for vaccinating university students without prior registration on its website.

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