The school shutdown

Bassem Aly , Tuesday 17 Mar 2020

Despite the temporary closure of schools and universities in Egypt due to the new coronavirus, many families are still worried about their children

Cairo University
Cairo University classroom after shutdown

Rasha is the mother of three children, and she has been left with mixed feelings after finding out they will have to stay at home for two weeks to avoid the spread of Covid-19. When asked about her reaction, she responded by saying that “this is wonderful news for any mother” before realising what the news could mean for her and her husband.

Herself a pharmacist, Rasha said that closing schools and universities only reduced the risk of catching the coronavirus but did not completely eliminate it. “Our schools are not prepared to face the coronavirus: the children are not always under strict control, and there is a large number of students in each class. It would have been impossible to resume this school year and face the coronavirus at the same time,” she said.

The disease first emerged in Wuhan in China last December before spreading to the rest of the world. So far, no medicine can either prevent or cure it. Until Al-Ahram Weekly went to print more than 200,000 people have been infected worldwide, and more than 6,000 individuals have lost their lives. Quarantines, national emergencies, and restrictions on the movement of people have been seen around the globe. Egypt has started to follow this path.

Some workplaces in Egypt, including private companies and educational institutions, have allowed people to either work from home or temporarily stop going to their offices. But others have not. For the latter, Rasha noted, parents will either have to leave the children alone at home, send them to their grandparents, or send them to childcare centres whose prices have increased by three or four times they faced the same shutdown.

A Cairo school
A Cairo school before shutdown

The same thing has happened with the prices of many antiseptics. Rasha said prices had jumped from LE9 to LE20 despite the shortages in pharmacies. But whether for Rasha or her colleagues in the hospital in which she works, these are the only solutions. “This is the best we can do to protect our children. If I have to go to the supermarket, I will leave my children at home and wash my hands as soon as I come back. This way, the risk of catching the coronavirus will not be high, especially since the children cannot go to sporting clubs now,” Rasha explained.

She knows that her options are limited. “When Egypt saw heavy rains last week, we all had to stay at home until the storms were over. We had nothing else to do,” she said.

School teachers are happy with the decision. Sarah, an English teacher, believes it should have come even earlier, referring to the joint appeal made by the ministries of health and education to school administrators to suspend activities and physical education sessions.

Sarah said that “we could have avoided infections” like the one that happened in an international school in Zamalek if the decision had been taken earlier. Schools are always crowded, she said, and their “teachers did raise awareness amongst our students about the importance of hand washing, using tissues when coughing or sneezing, and avoiding handshakes and other unnecessary forms of intimacy for the time being.”

For her, the future is still uncertain. “We are still uncertain about how things will go in the coming weeks,” Sarah said, adding that she had received training about online teaching, which means the school is considering it as an option and continuing lessons and assigning homework through this method.

But no final decision has been made, at least in the school she works for, on whether things will be conducted as usual or work will be done from home. Sarah added that school administrators were trying to calm parents down because they were concerned over cancelled or postponed exams.

CHALLENGES: “Do you know what it means for active children who go everyday to their school and sporting club to stay at home for two weeks,” Rasha asked.

“Both my son and daughter have regular swimming sessions at the club after school. Now it’s over. Even on the academic level, they will be severely affected. Some school subjects, such as maths, are cumulative by nature: the tests are based on what they took both during this year and in past years. I will have to do my best to solve these problems for them, though I know that this is a much better fate for them than suffering from coronavirus,” she said, saying that her son had been excited about a swimming tournament scheduled for March.

“During these days [of tournaments], the sporting clubs become overcrowded and not as clean as they should be, and the infection might be easily transferred. All mothers called for cancelling the tournament and training sessions, which then happened. But we still have a price to pay. My son may lose the muscles he has been building up as a swimmer for years now,” she said.

Sara, another schoolteacher and a parenting coach, shared some tips on dealing with children during such tough times. She believes that parents should develop a list of routine activities for children. This might include washing the dishes, doing the laundry, or learning how to use the dishwasher.

Sara said that there were “millions of ideas online” for keeping children busy. If both parents have to go to work, then they will be in need of different plans, including preparing ready-to-eat snacks and meals for their children, keeping dangerous tools and devices out of their reach, giving them phone access, counting on an older sibling if possible, and asking a neighbour to pass by on a regular basis.

“This is a very practical option for middle and working-class neighbourhoods because people in the same residential buildings know each other well,” Sara argued. Even so, she highlighted the fact that the situation could not be fully controlled. Children may feel abandoned or that parents are not prioritising their needs. Sara said it was very important for parents to explain to their children that the measures were necessary to protect them from coronavirus infection in conversations that should depend on the age of the child.

To a four-year-old child, a parent could simply say that he or she is being protected against germs, unlike the case with an older son or daughter who has to be aware of the causes of coronavirus infection and how to deal with them.

Children should not be exposed to any kind of gatherings. “I went to the supermarket today, and unfortunately it seems that people are seeing shopping as a leisure activity. This should not be the case,” Sara stated. As much as possible, parents should “spend quality time with their children when they return home.”

For these reasons, Doha, a former radio presenter who now works as a teacher, said awareness campaigns were a top priority. “Frankly speaking, I feel that people are not taking the situation seriously enough. There are problems among the less-educated people in society. They are not handling hygiene issues in the right manner, and their children are still playing in the streets as if nothing is happening,” Doha stressed.

The middle and upper-middle classes are also “panicking” about coronavirus, though fortunately the children of such social groups know the importance of washing their hands, have already bought sanitisers, and are “singing the wash your hands songs”, she said. People needed to start talking to each other about how to deal with the coronavirus, she added. “Knowledge is power. If you have hired a maid, a driver, or a doorman, just tell them how to protect their families because they live in communities that may know little about hygiene.

“For instance, I met a nanny at school that complained about a sore throat. I immediately told her that she had to rinse her mouth with water and salt. She knew nothing about the steps she needed to take to protect herself against the coronavirus. Society needs campaigns, whether at the metro stations, on the radio, or other possible means, to inform the public on why coronavirus is dangerous.

“The aim is to make sure that everyone knows how to protect themselves,” Doha concluded.

*A version of this article appears in print in the  19 March, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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