For some 23.5 million children in Egypt’s public schools, it was back-to-school on 17 October 2020. The traditional Egyptian salute for annual events Kul sanna wenta tayyeb, literally “May you be well [for the occasion] every year”, rang in homes where children hustled to get ready for their first day in the new school year. But there was some weird flavour to the annual salute. Did this day mark a start to just another school year? Would it be a year like any other? The school year 2020 / 2021 promises to be different, the obvious reason being COVID-19.
Even though daily figures of COVID-19 infections and deaths in Egypt have for weeks plateaued at a reasonably declined level—daily cases have hovered around 130, and deaths at less than 15—no one can rule out the threat of a second wave of the virus. This obviously means that the possibility of schools closing again after they open, a possibility almost unanimously disliked, lurks in the shadows.
The government, however, decided it was possible to go ahead with back-to-school as long as general health conditions made that possible. Senior officials from the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Health sat down with counterparts from the WHO and UNICEF to set the rules for cautionary measures to be applied in schools to prevent COVID-19 infections and deal with matters if any infection is detected.
It was decided that school space and time should be exploited and shuffled to ensure distancing among students. Masks or shields are mandatory, and sanitary measures are to be strictly implemented. The ministries of education and health have been electronically networked to monitor possible COVID-19 cases and follow up on the aftermath.
If a cue may be taken from international schools in Egypt, which opened mid-September, classes in which COVID-19 cases emerged were closed and the children home-quarantined for two weeks, whereas schools where more COVID-19 cases were detected were altogether closed for two weeks.
In person vs online
Before the new school year was announced, the question that begged an answer was: Would Egypt put aside for now its ambitious education reform plan? But the auspicious answer was that e-learning is one of the mainstays of the education reform plan, meaning the plan lends itself well to schooling under COVID-19.
Minister of Education and Technical Education, Tarek Shawki, said the Ministry had drawn the general framework of the order of the new scholastic year, which applied a hybrid in-person / online system of learning. He said it was up to school directors to implement the new order according to the situation in each school. This meant, he explained, that the specific days for children to attend school, the hours, holding or cancelling the traditional morning assembly, class time tables or schedules, and suchlike details should be resolved individually by schools. School activities are not to be cancelled, he said, but have to be scheduled according to the weekdays convenient to all.
In the new school year system, children in pre-primary classes and until third year primary are required to attend school four days a week—instead of the usual five-day week—in schools that operate one shift, and three days a week in two-shift schools; given that direct pupil-teacher interaction is of utmost importance for education in that stage. Children in the fourth to sixth primary years should attend school two or three days a week depending on whether they go to one- or two-shift schools. For the remainder of the five-day school week, scholastic work should be done online.
Preparatory and secondary school students should go to school two days a week. Otherwise, classes and programmes run online.
To accommodate online learning, the Minister of Education said, huge and varied learning resources have been made accessible to all students.
Children in classes from pre-primary to third primary will be on a new multi-disciplinary education system taught face to face in school. From the fourth primary to third preparatory year, students will be offered, in addition to their classes in school and their school books, auxiliary online schooling platforms. These include virtual classes, interactive e-books, questions to teachers, an online tutoring library, and access to the Egyptian Knowledge Bank (EKB).
As to secondary school students, they will not be handed any printed books, but will be given instead tablets already uploaded with all the learning material assigned. Dr Shawki said 1.8 million such tablets have already been made available to students. Additionally, extensive online learning resources are at their fingertips, including EKB, Learning Management System (LMS), virtual classes and tutorial sessions, interactive e-books, and TV teaching channels.
The Minister said that, according to directives by President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi, a new book on values and respect for the other will be assigned reading starting from third year primary. The book comes under the title “We Build Together”. Secondary school students for their part will be assigned to read the book “Building the Patriotic Character”.
Reform plan on time
“For Egypt, education is nothing less than a national security issue,” in the words of President Sisi. Which explains why education reform is on the priority list of the government, according to Prime Minister Mostafa Madbouly, and is a substantial objective of the development plan “Egypt 2030”. It does not help, though, that Egypt’s population is in explosion, a fact which, the President says, requires doubling the country’s resources, in this case education resources. Neither does it help that this scholastic year is complicated by COVID-19 pandemic considerations.
New classes needed
Last September, during an education-related event, Prime Minister Madbouly cited a few indicative figures. Egypt, he said, had some 30,000 public schools that included near half-a-million classes serving more than 23.5 million students in the 2019 / 2020 school year. This obviously meant overcrowding, leading to classes that accommodated anywhere between 40 to 70 students each.
In many cases, he said, schools would have to operate in two shifts, in some cases two schools would have to share the same building, again working in shifts. “A big challenge,” Mr Madbouly said, “is that we need 73,000 new classes at a cost of EGP40 billion. And this just to cover overcrowding; we wouldn’t have even begun providing for new pupils joining school every year in huge numbers owing to population growth.” According to official figures of Egypt’s birth rate and infant death statistics, it is expected that more than 700,000 new pupils would join school in the upcoming school year.
“We plan 40,000 new classes until fiscal year 2021 / 2022. And we insist that the quality of education, also of technical education and vocational training should go up to international standards.”
Nothing short of revolution
In 2017, Dr Shawki announced the education reform plan. “By 2030,” he promised, “the dream of a good education for every Egyptian child will be a reality on the ground.
“As matters stand,” he said, “everyone [involved in children’s schooling: children, parents, teachers] is fed-up. This must change … Education in Egypt needs nothing short of a revolution. Our dream is to build an entirely new education system, not merely to reform the current one. We aim at making the educational process enjoyable.
The following year, 2018, the first phase of the education reform plan was put into action. The new system fosters in children critical thinking and eagerness to learn. It is learner-centred, depending primarily on electronic learning and assessment, with the Ministry offering students curricula and teaching assistance online in addition to person-to-person schooling. It offers students free access to the Egyptian Knowledge Bank, launched in 2016 in collaboration with top ranking international institutions of knowledge resources, as an extensive world-class base of knowledge and reference sources, research and education material.
Evaluation of students is through e-examinations selected from an online exam bank, and assessed through an online system.
Admittedly, the new system has been challenged with bugs which the Ministry of Education promptly worked to resolve.
The new system was first applied to smaller schoolchildren; it now covers, according to Dr Shawki, 8 million students that include some 120,000 children with special needs.
As to technical education, Dr Shawki said that the Ministry has partnered with private sector industrialists and international quality assurance institutions to overhaul and upgrade it.
A self-evident truth being that the teacher is pivotal in any education system, Dr Shawki said the Ministry of Education is giving top priority to teacher training and advancement. He said that world class training and teacher qualifying portals would be set up, through which teachers may gain official accreditation.
With all possible learning aid at the fingertips of students, would schoolchildren need the costly private tutoring sessions which have been rampant albeit outlawed, and which went under the hated term “private lessons”? The current school year should see a new system in tutoring, a system that would be legal yet affordable for students and at the same time lucrative for teachers. The new system allows for schools or government education directorates to supervise the formation of “enhancement groups” where tutorials are given by teachers in well-equipped school spaces to groups of students who feel they need to improve their standards in any given subject, allowing thus for advantage in fiercely competitive examinations. Students are free to choose whichever group they wish to attend. The teacher is paid 85 per cent of the revenue of the tutorials, the school and Ministry of Education get the remaining 15 per cent. That way, Dr Shawki said, all would benefit: students get tutorials at affordable rates, teachers make good profit, and the government gets its dues.
So for everyone in education, it’s “kul sanna wenta tayyeb”.
18 October 2020