Egyptian high school students attend the first day of final exams / photo: Reuters
Despite assurances from the Ministry of Education and Technical Education that it had heightened precautionary measures to prevent the coronavirus from spreading to grade 12 high school students taking the Thanaweya Amma exams, the first of the finals held on Sunday saw many complaints from both students and parents.
Many students also came down with the virus. On Monday, Mohamed Dahi, head of the General Health Insurance Authority, said there were many cases of coronavirus detected among students in the exams. Twenty-nine students who showed symptoms, including high temperature and diarrhoea, had to take their exams in designated isolation rooms in schools or had been transferred to isolation hospitals. There were at least three confirmed cases of students in home isolation after they were diagnosed with the virus, but they decided to take the exams despite having the option of postponing them.
With almost 650,000 students sitting for the Arabic exam, anxious families had asked for a postponement of the exams but assurances by Minister of Education Tarek Shawki as well as senior officials in both the health and education ministries about precautionary measures had somewhat allayed their concerns and left them believing that a safe examination environment was in place.
A few days before the exams, Shawki had said students would have their temperature taken and would wear personal protection before entering the school building. Before entering the schools, students would pass through a cabin spraying disinfectant for their safety. He also asserted that the ministry will be distributing 16,575 temperature measuring devices, 33 million facemasks for students and all staff members, seven million gloves for invigilators and teachers, and 33 million plastic shoe covers.
Also, the Ministry of Education coordinated with the Ministry of Health to provide schools with special medical teams to check students’ temperatures and to ensure that physical distancing rules were being observed and protective facemasks worn by all students before entering the school premises and their classrooms.
However, only a few schools seem to have adopted these measures, leading to massive complaints from parents and students from the governorates regarding the lack of some or all of Covid-19 precautionary measures. During a tour conducted by Al-Ahram Weekly in several schools in Cairo, many failed in maintaining social distancing as students and parents were seen assembling in masses in front of schools before and after the exams.
Omnia Harhash, a Thanaweya Amma student in 6 October City, said the school had applied the ministry’s Covid-19 precautionary measures. “A sterilisation cabin was at the school entrance, and there were supervisors distributing facemasks and hand sanitiser sachets, one for each student. Though the sachet was not enough for anything, it was better than nothing,” said Harhash who added that although all the students and supervisors entered the classroom wearing facemasks, many of them took them off because of the hot weather.
Sterilisation cabins were not operating properly in most schools and some schools did not have them at all. Nor did they have facemasks or plastic covers for shoes. Nivan Omar, another Thanaweya Amma student, said that while the cabin was working properly when she walked through it, she was told by her classmates who went after her that the spray nozzles were not working.
“There were neither cabins, facemasks nor gloves. If I did not have my own facemask, I would have entered the school without any precautionary equipment. Many of my friends were not wearing facemasks, depending on what the ministry said about providing them,” Omayma Fikri, who sat for her exam in the low-income Imbaba district, said.
Another student, Mohamed, noted that the class where he took the Arabic exam was full of dust as if it had not been cleaned for a year. “I doubt very much these classes have been even mopped, let alone sanitised,” he said.
Spokesman for the Ministry of Education and Technical Education Mahmoud Hassouna denied claims that some schools were lacking Covid-19 precautionary equipment. “Ministry of Education officials were supervising the distribution of material to the country’s schools,” confirmed Hassouna, while adding that classrooms were thoroughly cleaned and disinfected.
“Prime Minister Mustafa Madbouli, along with the minister of education and technical education, toured several schools in New Cairo where they inspected the application of Covid-19 precautionary measures. They did not see any deficiency in applying the ministry’s precautionary measures,” Hassouna told Al-Ahram Weekly.
Ali Adel, a Thanaweya Amma student in an Alexandria school, noted that students gathered outside schools for at least half an hour before going in. “After entering the school premises, we had to wait in the sun for another hour and a half before entering the classrooms. We were standing very close to each other, just a few centimetres between us. Because it was very sunny and hot we stood close to each other under the trees for shade,” Adel said.
Mohamed Adel, a Thanaweya Amma teacher and exam supervisor, said precautionary measures were better in some schools than others while schools in remote areas lacked them. “The ministry is exerting its utmost efforts, but the load is huge,” Adel said.
He pointed out that the worst three days in the exams are the three subjects common among all students: Arabic, English, and a second language. The rest of the exams, he said, will see a fewer number of students and thus a lower risk.
Reda Hegazi, deputy to the minister of education, was disappointed that some schools did not abide by social distancing due to their inability to control the parents and students. “Parents and students must be aware that applying these measures is for the students’ welfare as well as staff and families as a whole,” Hegazi said while adding the ministry has set up emergency hotlines to report any complaint.
He said people must take into consideration the fact that Sunday was the first day of the exams. “Inefficiency is expected in the first trial as neither parents nor students are used to these newly introduced measures,” adding that in the next few days matters will be more organised.
Everything is under control, according to Hegazi, and if ministry officials feel that matters are out of control, it will resort to Plan B: asking the help of security forces to maintain order while queuing to enter schools.