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Coronavirus Fears Shut Down Universities and Schools in the Arab World

The new coronavirus that started in China late last year has reached the Arab world. At least five countries—Kuwait, Bahrain, Iraq, Lebanon and the United Arab Emirates—have called for the temporary suspension of all classes at schools and universities in an effort to halt the virus’s spread.

Several other countries have restricted some school activities in response to public concerns about the virus.

As of March 3, more than 165 confirmed cases of Covid-19, the illness caused by the virus, have been reported in the 22 Arab League member nations, according to the World Health Organization.

While the number of infections is small, compared to the more than 90,000 cases worldwide, the outbreak has raised worries about the possibility of the disease’s spread in schools and universities, where thousands of students, teachers, professors and other employees meet daily.

Some students, however, say that efforts like closing schools are futile, serving only to frighten people and impede their own academic progress.

Coronavirus Contagion in the Arab World?

Besides the five countries that imposed school closings, at least eight other Arab countries—Algeria, Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Tunisia —have confirmed cases of Covid-19.

A big concern for some of those countries is halting the further spread of the disease from neighboring Iran, which, with more than 2,000 cases, has become one of the hardest-hit countries outside of China.

Kuwait, which had 56 cases as of March 3, the highest number of infections among the Arab countries, announced a two-week suspension of classes at all schools, universities, public and private colleges, and government education centers.

Bahrain, with 49 cases, suspended all private and public schools, universities, and nurseries across the kingdom for two weeks from February 25. The country announced those precautions after a school bus driver tested positive for the disease.

Lebanon suspended studies and called for the closing of all educational institutions in the country for one week. The country has seen only 13 cases of Covid-19 as of March 3, but took that step as a precautionary measure after many people asked for it on social media.

“There is a great state of fear among students and their families as a result of the spread of rumors and lack of confidence in government statements.”

Ilham Saidawi  
A teacher at a public school in southern Lebanon

“There is a great state of fear among students and their families as a result of the spread of rumors and lack of confidence in government statements,” said Ilham Saidawi, a teacher at a public school in southern Lebanon. Saidawi noted that the informal suspension of work hours at many businesses was also a good step, especially since many students were not attending classes over the last period.

In Iraq, authorities announced the suspension of studies at schools and universities across the country, as well as the closure of cafes, cinemas and other public gathering spots through March 7, Reuters reported. (It was unclear whether the protesters in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square and in other cities would heed the ban on public gatherings.) “About 100 public and private universities have been closed in anticipation and work hours have been reduced for employees to the lowest level for ten days,” said Ahmed Al-Jaafari, director of the Quality Assurance Department at Iraq’s Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research. He pointed out that the Ministry of Education is taking precautionary measures to sterilize students’ sitting places, halls and university courtyards during this period. “If the virus continues to spread, the suspension may be extended,” he added.

Iraqi medical staff checking passengers arriving from Iran in the Najaf airport. Iraq’s long border with Iran and close cultural relations are now putting it at risk for Covid-019 infections (Photo: Anmar Khalil/AP).
Iraqi medical staff checking passengers arriving from Iran in the Najaf airport. Iraq’s long border with Iran and close cultural relations are now putting it at risk for Covid-019 infections (Photo: Anmar Khalil/AP).

Iraq, which shares a 900-mile-long border with Iran as well as religious and cultural ties, had 26 cases of Covid-19 as of earlier this week, according to the WHO. Its first reported cases involved an Iranian student in Najaf, in south-central Iraq, and a family of four in northern Kirkuk province who had recently visited Iran.

In other countries, classes continued but authorities were taking precautions to reduce the possibility of infection transmission. The Palestinian Ministry of Health called for the suspension of activities, events and school trips, both inside and outside the country, although no cases of the new coronavirus have been reported there.

The World Health Organization had announced earlier that the “window of hope” to contain the virus was closing slowly, confirming that Covid-19 was fast spreading and may soon reach most, if not all, countries in the world.

The disease is similar to seasonal flu, though its symptoms may be more severe, the WHO’s general director said in a news briefing this week. So far there are no vaccines or therapies for treating it.

Students’ Views on Closings

Many students and professors in Arab countries said they agreed that authorities should be prepared to suspend classes in light of the continued spread of the virus and the lack of clear information about cases and possible treatments.

“Universities and schools should be closed as long as infection cases are discovered,” said Ahmed Abdul-Hamid, 21, a student at Cairo University’s Faculty of Science. “We do not have enough information about opportunities to recover from it, and we should not risk our lives.” Egypt has reported only two cases of the virus so far, though some groups say the actual number could be higher.

In Libya, Ibrahim Khalaf, a student at Al-Marqab University’s School of Law, agreed with Abdul-Hamid. Although no cases have been reported in Libya yet, the record of an infection in Tunisia means that the danger is very close, Khalaf said. “Precautionary measures must be taken and universities closed,” he said.

In Yemen, which also has no reported cases of the virus so far, Tariq Al-Marhabi, a lecturer at the Faculty of Applied Sciences at Hajjah University, supports the idea of shutting down universities if any infections are confirmed there.

“Universities and schools should be closed as long as infection cases are discovered.”

Ahmed Abdul-Hamid
 A student at Cairo University

“Certainly, schools and universities should be shut down to prevent the further spread of the virus, especially since Yemen’s healthcare system is very poor and we do not have the financial means to cope with it,” he said.

In contrast, some students worry that suspending classes is at best a temporary solution that could harm students’ futures.

“Lessons have been disrupted for the past period due to the protests, and now they have been suspended due to coronavirus,” said Nasser Al-Asaad, a student at the College of Commerce at Baghdad University. “We are about to lose an entire academic year.”

Distance Education: A Preliminary Solution

In the United Arab Emirates, the Ministry of Education said schools will be closed for a month starting Sunday to combat the spread of the novel coronavirus, although the ministry called it an “early four-week spring vacation.” The ministry is conducting a trial run of the Learning from Afar program for pupils in grades 5 to 12 this week.

Also, a number of Kuwaiti professors were quick to announce their intention to continue their classes online.

“Whether studying at the university is suspended or not, I will guarantee that my students will complete the course by using the recorded lectures,” tweeted Mohammed al-Kandari, a faculty member at the College of Engineering at Kuwait University.

Hamad al-Yaseen, an assistant professor of genomics at Kuwait University’s College of Health Sciences, believes that online learning can be useful.

“We try to avoid gatherings in closed rooms, to reduce the risk of infection,” he said. “Theoretical parts can be taught online so that we avoid a large number of students gathered in the lecture hall.” As for the practical parts of courses that must be taught in the laboratories, “We can postpone it until we return to study regularly,” he added.

Outside of the Arab World: International Meetings

In higher education internationally, a ripple of cancellations has begun to move through the spring-meeting calendar of higher education administrators and scientists. These meetings are a central source of networking and informational exchange, as well as often being the key source of revenue for the organizations that hold them.

The American Physical Society, the leading international organization where the world’s physicists gather, was scheduled to meet in Denver, Colorado, this week. The meeting was canceled at the last minute after the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or CDC, upgraded the threat level that it believed the Covid-19 virus presented.

The Asia-Pacific Association for International Education, scheduled to meet March 22 to 26 in Vancouver, Canada, has postponed its meeting for a year, until 2021.

NAFSA: Association of International Educators is proceeding with plans to hold its annual conference in St. Louis in late May, but the organization said in a statement on its website this week that it was “paying close attention” to statements from the CDC and the WHO regarding the coronavirus and was following those agencies’ guidelines. “The well-being of 2020 NAFSA Annual Conference & Expo attendees is of the utmost importance,” it said.

The British Council has provided no updates so far regarding how the coronavirus might affect its “Going Global” conference, set for late June in London.

Tarek Abd El-Galil, reporting from Egypt, and Aisha Elgayar, reporting from Kuwait, contributed to this article.


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