As summer draws to a close, it is time for May Allam to take her two sons on back-to-school errands to buy school uniforms, various stationary, and school-required supplies. Not so this year.
“We didn’t buy this year’s uniform yet because we don’t know if school will proceed normally once it opens; I’m also reluctant to buy stationary because I’m trying to limit errands to crowded, closed places as much as I can,” Allam says.
Coronavirus still there
Six months after students and pupils had to attend school online on account of the spread of COVID-19, schools are reopening for a new school year. Public schools are officially scheduled to open by mid-October; international schools open a month earlier, in mid-September.
But coronavirus is still there; it hasn’t gone away.
Many parents and teachers are doubtful it would be possible for schools to remain open in face of the coronavirus threat. So are they prepared to resume conventional schooling process?
“I fear for my sons from the virus, especially for the older one who suffers from asthma. There are no guarantees that the other students would exercise caution. I bought all the amenities: masks, gloves, and wipes my children would need. I even gave them spare masks for their friends in case they lose their masks. Their schoolbags are filled with antiseptics, masks and wipes instead of books,” Allam says.
The wariness of parents of the seasonal flu every school year has turned into real worry that students returning to school might be caught in a surge of COVID-19 infections.
Niveen Magdy, mother of two boys in primary school is worried. “Children always get sick in autumn, so we won’t be able to tell if it is COVID-19 or just the common cold. I don’t want my children to go back to school before a vaccine is available or before we are certain of a steady decline in COVID-19 infections,” Magdy says. With doubts running high that schools would close again after they open for the new school year, Magdy says that many parents are ditching the bus annual subscription in favour of carpooling in case schools do close and they don’t get reimbursed for the bus fees.
At home or at school?
Many schools are implementing necessary precautions to keep students safe and at the same time provide them with their rightful education experience.
Precautions include mandating secondary and preparatory school students and teachers to wear masks all day, alternating class schedules for students to secure a limited number of students in class and in school courtyards. Some schools have even mandated that children as young as six wear face shield on school buses.
Hany Erian, father of a student in year five, is not prepared to send his son to school.
“I’m planning to let him study at home and notify the school. I’ll hire private tutors to help him with his studies,” he says.
Sara Adel, mother of two boys in primary and preparatory school, says she isn’t afraid of sending them to school as they are likely to catch the virus anywhere just as well, but wearing the mask isn’t the answer.
“I know it’s hard to find a way out but I am against the idea of having children wear masks all day long. I find it very difficult to wear a mask myself when going to the supermarket for instance, so how could a child wear it all day long?” Adel says. She prefers to limit the number of school days instead, and seriously consider making up for that through online schooling at home.
“Students could divide their time between home and school. This puts less stress on them and saves their time and energy. Coronavirus taught us to explore options and be flexible because no situation lasts forever,” she says.
Missing direct interaction
Adel remarks that her online learning experience was not too successful, and prefers that schools improve the process of e-learning in the future.
Since online learning came as a sudden response to the spread of the coronavirus pandemic, many teachers and parents were not prepared for it.
Ola Kareem, an Arabic language teacher at a private school, says she found online teaching very difficult. She could not interact with her students, she explained, or know if they understood what she was saying.
“I like to see and talk to my students. The slightest sigh of any student makes me stop in track and ask what is it they didn’t understand.
“Twenty-two students, I follow their eyes and their movements. I move around and change the tone of my voice to keep them engaged. This was difficult online. I couldn’t interact with them as I wished. Human communication goes missing in online learning,” she says.
With online learning, teachers could hardly control their classes. “Some of my students were online from their own bedrooms and some were lying on their beds. I had to shout at them to make them sit up straight and follow the lesson,” Kareem says.
Some mothers, however, felt in better control of their children and their studies. Magdy says she felt she was in control of her two boys. “I preferred it when my younger son studied online because he was one to always forget his books and homework when he went to school so I never knew what he was supposed to study. But when he studied from home it was easier for me to find out from the teacher every morning what homework he had and what I needed to do to help him with his studies. My older son, though, worked on his own and attended his online classes just as if he were at school,” Magdy says.
Not all parents, however, agree that online schooling was a good experience.
Miriam Amir, mother of Carla in year seven, says her online experience was not good.
“We had a once-a-week zoom call for the English language class and the other subjects had worksheets. There was hardly any teaching, only homework. The school wasn’t ready for the situation except in case of the older students,” Amir says.
Yet Amir is worried about sending her special needs daughter to school. “I have mixed feelings. I’m happy that she will go and see her friends, but I’m worried. Hers is a special needs class, and I worry that the children might not have the awareness to take adequate precautions,” she says.
Important, but not safe
Germaine Bahaa, an English language teacher and mother of a preparatory school student, thinks school is important but is not safe.
Bahaa found it difficult to teach English to her students online or to assess them.
“Tests and exams are difficult on zoom and are not indicative of the student’s achievement, because they can go on the Internet or seek help. There’s no fair assessment of their actual achievement level. Their grades are not necessarily well deserved,” she says.
Some parents suggest alternating school weeks between home and school. But could alternating weeks be a satisfying solution for mothers and teachers?
“It was implemented in my children’s school, but it was a hassle for me because I do part time work, so I had to adjust my working schedule according to my children’s school days. This was very difficult, especially when I had to go to work on the days when they were schooled from home,” says Monda Joseph, Child Psychologist and mother of two girls.
Teachers also find it challenging for the teaching and learning process. “It isn’t fair for online students not to experience what their peers are learning and absorbing. Also, the process of explaining the material to students in class is very different from explaining it online,” Ola Kareem says.
The new reality created by COVID-19 pandemic has seriously compromised schooling, not least because of the sheer numbers of students and teachers. On 8 September, the Education Minister is expected to issue the final regulations for the new school year in light of the latest and anticipated COVID-19 figures. Despite the risk of infection, essential education is at stake.
2 September 2020