Saudi Arabia's schools welcome back 6 million pupils with Covid precautions

Vaccinated children head back to classrooms for the first time in a year and a half

A year and a half after schools in Saudi Arabia reverberated to the sound of children filing into classrooms, 6 million pupils arrived for in-person lessons on Sunday with Covid-19 precautions in place.

Secondary, middle and high school pupils formed lines outside their schools to show their vaccination status on the kingdom's Tawakkalna app on the first day of the new academic year.

The first class of the day was a 10-minute guide to the precautionary measures brought in by the ministries of health and education. All children must maintain social distancing and wear a mask during school hours.

Schools have been asked to cancel any academic or co-curricular activity, including assemblies, which compromise with social-distancing regulations.

While children over 12 – eligible for a vaccine in the kingdom – are back in school for in-person teaching, elementary pupils will continue to study remotely until October 30 or until the kingdom reaches herd immunity, the Education Ministry said.

"It was so strange, letting my child take his phone to school and just watch him and others queue outside his school in a mask, it's unlike anything I could have imagined," Ms Ayman, a mother of two in Jeddah who declined to give her first name, told The National.

"It's frightening to see what could happen in the world and how vulnerable we are, but at the same time, today gave me hope that things are getting better."

This school year, if any pupil tests positive for Covid-19, the entire class will be sent home and asked to quarantine for 10 days. To try and prevent that from happening, numerous measures have been brought in.

Desks are now placed two metres apart or divided by sterilised screens and classrooms will not be overcrowded.

The health authorities described masks and vaccinations as the “gateway” to pursuing education in school.

"It was hard explaining to my 6-year-old daughter that she cannot go to the canteen or play closely with her friends during the lunch break,” Jasmine Abdullah, an American citizen living in the kingdom, said.

“This year, apart from stationary we added more supplies like sanitisers, wipes and masks – these are the new essentials now."

Education Minister Hamad Al Sheikh said the safety of children and staff was the top priority and that SR1 billion ($266.6 million) had been spent on equipping schools with precautionary health measures and resources to ensure a safe return to in-person classes.

Prince Faisal bin Nawaf bin Abdulaziz, Governor of Al Jawf region in the north, visited Saraqa bin Malik Intermediate School in Sakaka to see preparations for the new school year and thanked the ministries for supporting education.

The Education Ministry said that attendance at universities and technical colleges would be limited to those who had been fully vaccinated. Schools and universities will not start marking absentees for a couple of weeks to allow pupils and students to complete their inoculation, it said.

"In order to ensure the regularity of the educational process for our students, and to preserve their safety as well as [that of] families and society, it was decided to postpone calculating absences in the first two weeks for university students and technical and vocational training students who did not complete two doses of the vaccines," a ministry representative said.

More than 93 per cent of pupils have so far received one dose of a Covid-19 vaccine in Saudi Arabia and 37 per cent had received two doses, the Education Ministry said last week.

"As for university and higher education, 85 per cent of students received one dose and 59 per cent completed their vaccinations."

The ministry called on pupils to get vaccinated “in order to return safely back to schools, achieve herd immunity so we can return to normal life".

Updated: August 29th 2021, 11:34 AM