‘Life Must Go On’: Syria’s Universities and Schools Prepare to Reopen

/ 08 Sep 2020

‘Life Must Go On’: Syria’s Universities and Schools Prepare to Reopen

With less than 3,000 confirmed Covid-19 cases, Syria has one of the lowest publicly reported coronavirus infections in the region. But some of the country’s leading doctors say those official numbers are far from reality and almost every house in Damascus has a coronavirus patient.

In that context, and despite families and doctors warning against a pending catastrophe, Syria’s school and universities are scheduled to re-open in the coming weeks.

In mid-March, Syria’s universities and schools closed as a part of a lockdown to contain the spread of the pandemic. Universities re-opened for in the beginning of June with an intensive teaching schedule and lectures to compensate for the lost time.

Professors uploaded some lectures online during the lockdown, but the Ministry of Higher Education required all content delivered online to be repeated in person for students who didn’t have access to the internet. Second semester exams started around mid-August, with calls to postpone them being dismissed.

Difficult Choices

“There were many proposed solutions; either postponing the whole school year and that would have created many problems next year, or waiting for a while and see how the pandemic would develop and react according to that, and we found that this was the best solution,” said Sahar Al-Fahoum, deputy minister for scientific research affairs at Syria’s higher education ministry.

Al-Fahoum said both the ministry and the government team assigned to curbing the virus had watched how the world was dealing with the pandemic and how most countries had to open eventually. The ministry imposed precautionary measures in universities such as widespread cleaning and sanitizing and offering more space to make social distancing possible, Al-Fahoum added.

“We still have coronavirus cases in universities; we cannot deny that and bury our heads in the sand, but they aren’t especially higher than other places in the country.”

Sahar Al-Fahoum   Deputy minister for scientific research affairs at Syria’s higher education ministry

“We still have coronavirus cases in universities; we cannot deny that and bury our heads in the sand, but they aren’t especially higher than other places in the country,” she added.

There have been at least 60 cases and 13 coronavirus-related deaths among Damascus University’s teaching staff, Alwatan newspaper reported in August. “It breaks our heart! We need more than 50 years to compensate for this loss,” said Al-Fahoum, who caught the virus herself and then recovered.

She said there would be tolerance with regard to students’ attending lectures but no flexibility in exam content or schedules.

The Student Perspective

Marwa Shbat, 21, a law student at Damascus University, said she was against opening universities at this point and forcing students to take exams. “We tried everything to convince the ministry to postpone the exams, but nothing worked,” she said.

The cautionary measures universities take vary between faculties and depend largely on students’ awareness and fear of the virus. “There is only a thermometer measuring students’ temperatures at the main gate, but this created more congestion there,” she said. Not all students wear masks and imposing a requirement for face coverings has not been strict on campus, she added.

Shbat said she will not attend lectures in next semester because she is afraid of catching the virus and passing it on to her mother or children.

“We went through many difficulties for 10 years of war, but it was all easier than the coronavirus,” she said.

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Lojen Sleman, 22, an Arabic literature student in Damascus, said her fear of going to the university faded after she examined the situation on the ground. “Everyone is wearing a mask, we keep good distance and we go home immediately after the class or exam as all cafés are closed,” Selman said.

Keeping proper distance among students during lectures will not be difficult in her department as many Arabic literature students don’t attend lectures, she added.

“We have to adapt. Coronavirus is now living with us and it’s the reality,” she said.

Two workers sanitize the seats in a Damascus University lecture hall (Photo: Ministry of Higher Education Facebook page).
Two workers sanitize the seats in a Damascus University lecture hall (Photo: Ministry of Higher Education Facebook page).

Practical Instruction is Difficult

But skipping lectures is not a solution for most students in majors such as medicine or engineering, especially for practical training.

Mohammed Daloua, 20, a medical student from Deraa, said attending practical classes during the coronavirus pandemic was difficult and confusing. Dividing students into smaller groups will not be possible because there is not enough time with a huge curriculum and a high number of students at his faculty, he said.

“We have to return to school, and we can only depend on students’ awareness,” he added.

“We have to adapt. Coronavirus is now living with us and it’s the reality.”

Lojen Sleman   An Arabic literature student in Damascus

But depending on such awareness to restrict the virus from spreading might not work in elementary and middle schools, which are due to open on September 13, after months of being closed.

A debate about whether the opening of schools should be delayed has started on the education ministry’s Facebook page. Parents are divided between those who think postponing school openings is not a solution and those who are concerned they will sacrifice their children’s lives for education.

The voices against reopening have become stronger and members of parliament and health experts have called for at least another two weeks’ delay in opening  until the curve of rising infections starts to flatten.

Parents Agonize

“If I had a child, I would probably not send him to school now,” Mohamed Nobough Al Awa, the dean of the Faculty of Medicine at Damascus University said in an interview with Sham FM radio station last month. He said imposing hygiene and social distancing measures on young pupils will not be possible.

The education ministry says it will apply a special plan to deal with the virus and ensure pupils’ and staff members safety. According to this policy, schools must dedicate 30 minutes every week to raising awareness among pupils about coronavirus, the number of pupils sharing a desk will be reduced to two “if possible”, and classes will be closed for two to five days if a coronavirus case is confirmed.

Yet, many parents are concerned.

“Education loss can be compensated but lives cannot,” said Lama Alnaser, a mother of three.

Children cannot be fully aware of their behavior all day in school and supervision cannot assure they will abide social distancing measures all the time, she added.

“We are entering a horror film and will see what will happen to us. My children and I are heading into the unknown. May God protect us.”




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