The coronavirus pandemic has reshaped the lives of school-aged children across the country. Yara Ahmed, 10, who misses her school, schoolmates, and teachers, said that she “never thought I’d miss school, but I do. It has been hard for me not to see my school friends, classmates, and teachers. I didn’t realise that all the random conversations in class and the catching up with my friends at lunch were such a big part of my life.”
Hossam Tarek, a grade eight student, believes doing school work from home is very stressful. “I have not been able to separate time for myself and school time because it seems to all be mixed together,” he said. “Before we were obliged to start homeschooling, I was a lot happier and looking forward to summer. To keep myself from getting too down about all this, I hope by next school year everything will be back to normal,” he added.
Hossam Sweifi, a psychologist, noted that school routines are important coping mechanisms for students’ mental health. When schools are closed, many students might lose an anchor in life. “Though going to school has long been a struggle for some children, at least they had school routines to stick with,” he said.
Schools provide essential learning and other experiences for students. By closing down schools, students are deprived of opportunities for growth and development, he said. The disadvantages are also disproportionate for under-privileged learners who tend to have fewer educational opportunities beyond school.
Tamer Hossam, eight, wishes he could go to school, but his school is closed, and he is sad and upset. “I miss my friends in school. I used to play games with my friends during the breaks and between classes. I think of them most of the time. Before this virus, my life at school was happier. I hope it will start again soon,” Hossam said.
Parents are also concerned, and they are sometimes not satisfied with the scenarios that Minister of Education and Technical Education Tarek Shawki has put in place regarding end-of-semester exams and the resumption of the second semester. Many parents believe that the minister’s decisions, though flexible, are confusing.
Sahar Ibrahim, a housewife and the mother of two children, noted that “it is very difficult for our children to be examined on the entire curriculum on one day in the exam. It is unfair to evaluate the students’ performance in this way.”
Noha Fawzi, a lawyer and the mother of one child, said that “private lessons have been cancelled, educational centres are closed down, and children are at home taking their lessons online and unable to properly interact with their class teacher and classmates. Though the lessons are useful, I feel that my son is bored and missing his school life. He does not want to study or even listen to the teachers’ explanations properly,” she said.
It was last week that Shawki revealed the ministry’s plans for first and second semester exams. The minister said of first semester exams for students from KG1 until grade three that these students would not sit any exams according to the country’s new education system. Shawki said that students from grade four until eight would sit a one-day collective exam immediately after the vacation that would include all the subjects in one paper. Grade four students would sit their collective exam on 28 February, whereas grades five until eight would take their collective exams from 1 to 4 March.
According to the ministerial decree, students in grade 10 and 11 started their online exams on 27 February and will continue until 9 March. These grades are taking their exams on different days in order to avoid overcrowding. The second semester for all schools starts on 10 March.
Students in grades nine and 12 will sit their finals at the end of the academic year, when they will be examined on the whole curriculum. They will sit their exams on school premises. Grade 12 students will take their exams at school electronically, while grade nine students will take paper exams.
“Final exams for grade 12 students will be by the beginning of July due to the Covid-19 pandemic. The ministry is not going to cancel any parts of the curriculum,” Shawki said.
Regarding the final exams for the second semester, Shawki said that students from grades four until eight would sit monthly collective exams at their schools by the end of March, April, and May. Average grades from these collective exams will be considered the second semester’s final grade for each student. Grade 10 and 11 students will take online monthly exams in March, April, and May at home.
The minister said that parents who are worried about allowing their children to go to school have the option to postpone the current academic year, and that they will still be able to get their letter grades.
Students studying for the American Diploma in Egypt will have to take the new Egyptian Scholastic Test (EST) alongside their Diploma exams (SAT), as the new EST exam has been recognised as the students’ only way to enter the country’s public universities. For Egyptian students studying abroad, the process for sitting exams will be announced next week.
Selim Aziz, a grade 12 student studying for the American Diploma, said that “the last time I heard the words ‘you may start now’ was in December 2019.
“I miss hearing this phrase, and I miss school life. I don’t like to be homeschooled, as it’s very boring. Most of the time I log on to the class, mute the sound, close the camera, and continue sleeping. Many of my peers do the same,” he said.
The ministerial decree was also a shock for many parents and teachers. Nermine Samuel, a parent, believes that the minister’s decree has burdened parents and students. “I have two daughters. We have been studying together since last December, when the minister instructed students to stay at home while continuing with their studies.
“The minister’s new system regarding the collective exams is unbelievable. Does the minister expect our children to answer 10 questions on each subject in one paper at the same time? Albert Einstein himself wouldn’t be able to do so. How does the minister expect our children to answer this amount of questions on different subjects in two or three hours,” Samuel asked.
Reda Hegazi, an advisor to the minister of education and technical education, said that students from grades four until eight are required to answer 10 questions for the Arabic exam, five for the English exam, four for the social studies exam, and seven for the mathematics exam. There are also four questions on science. The duration of the exam is two hours.
For grade nine, there will be 10 questions for Arabic, six for English, five for social studies, eight for mathematics, and six for science. The duration will also be two hours, Hegazi said.
Ibrahim Hassan, a social studies teacher, believes the new system will be very difficult for many students. “Students should have been trained on these collective exams. They have to be trained on how to shift from one subject to another,” he said.
Mohamed Abdel-Hamid, the father of a grade 10 student, is upset at the minister’s decree as his son is going to school in order to take the exams, thus increasing the risk of getting Covid-19. “The younger grades are sitting their exams on only one day in all subjects, thus reducing the risk of contracting the virus. Why didn’t the minister apply the same system for years 10 and 11? Are our kids not as important as the younger ones? I wish the exams could have been online,” Abdel-Hamid said.
Hanan Salama, the mother of three children who is discontented with homeschooling, but thinks it is safer in the current circumstances of the pandemic, said she had concerns about overcrowding when students take their exams.
“It would have been better if the exams had been canceled, or replaced by research papers as was the case last year,” Salama said.
She said she was concerned her children were not receiving a proper education on the online system. “Our children are missing a lot by depriving them of their school life, and the government is risking their health by allowing them to sit their finals at school,” Salama said.
Hegazi said that all necessary precautionary measures would be adopted by schools for grade 10 and 11 students, and there was no need to worry. “It is difficult to set a collective exam for students in those grades, as the curriculum is long and complicated. We want our students to study properly and to take their exams properly in order to be fairly graded, as the marks of those two grades are part of the overall grade that will enable them to go to university,” he said.
Marwa Raafat, the mother of a grade seven student, said that although the decision to extend the closures was cumbersome, decisions regarding the second term were flexible, thus reducing the pressure on students. At the same time, taking a collective exam on the whole curriculum in one day was stressful for students.
Mona Ahmed, the parent of a grade 10 student who went to his school, but could not take his exam owing to technical problems, said that “my son along with five of his colleagues went to the school and were present during the exam, but they could not take their exam as they could not log on to the platform. My son panicked as he did not know what to do. The invigilator reported the incident to the school administration. We do not know what will happen. Is he going to re-sit the exam or fail the subject? We don’t know,” she said.
Hegazi said that 90 per cent of grade 10 students managed to sit their exams on 27 February. He said the ministry had decided to pass all those who had attended school but could not take their exams for technical reasons such as system failures and were unable to log on to the exam platform.
“The ministry is taking full responsibility for any technical difficulties that might have faced students when taking their exams. Those who were taking their exams when the system logged them out of the platform will also pass,” Hegazi said.
Meanwhile, the Ministry of Education has been working with the Ministry of Information Technology, which has in turn solved the technical problems on the exam platform. “The ministry has decided to divide the governorates into two groups, where students from each group will sit their exams on a different day in order to alleviate pressures on the network,” Hegazi said.
“Parents and students should calm down as the ministry is exerting tremendous efforts in order to enable students to successfully take their exams during the pandemic period,” he concluded.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 11 March, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly