Coronavirus: Relief and trepidation as Jordan sends children back to school

New strains and financial woes hamper restoration of education system

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Children walked to school along dusty streets in impoverished neighbourhoods in north Amman on Sunday for the first time since coronavirus closed schools 10 months ago.

The gradual return to class is the last major coronavirus measure to be lifted since King Abdullah told the government to lift restrictions on January 12, citing an improvement in public health.

Kindergarten, first and 12th graders were back  at schools across Jordan on Sunday. Grades 2, 3, 10 and 11 will follow over the coming weeks. A second phase will start on February 22 and cover pupils from fourth to ninth grade.

"I am happy because I will be seeing all my friends tomorrow," said Nadia, a final year pupil at an all-girls state high school in Abu Nseir, near the Baqaa camp for Palestinian refugees. In Jordan there are no mixed government schools after third grade.

The changes are occurring amid a deep recession and recorded cases in the last few weeks of new, more infectious coronavirus strains. Unemployment is officially at a record 23.9 per cent.

The United Nations International Children's Emergency Fund said in its latest assessment that while children worldwide had been affected, school closures in Jordan raised risks of more children leaving school permanently, particularly in poor areas.

“Children in early adolescence are at greatest risk of dropping out, often linked to child labour and child marriage,” the organisation said in its latest assessment of the kingdom of 10 million people.

Face masks are a rarity in Abu Nseir, a workshop and farming area on the edge of a Palestinian refugee camp. Streets are strewn with rubbish and dirty wooden cages outside shops are stuffed with muddied chickens for sale. Pollution fills the air.

A woman walking with her daughter, niece and two nephews, all aged five, to Abu Nseir Primary School, said she and other parents among her extended family were relieved to have time for themselves.

“The children have been sitting in our faces for months. We have no money for the internet,” she said, referring to the connection needed for remote learning.

“At this age they cannot learn anything remotely anyway.”

Inside Baqaa camp, mothers dropped their children at the Childhood Services Centre, a kindergarten supported by an Islamic charity and Unicef.

Children on their first day back to kindergarten in Al Baqa’a camp, following Covid-19 school closures. Amy McConaghy/ The National

“We have taken the right health measures for our children but we can’t guarantee the other children,” said Hana Abu Zakia, who was dropping her five-year old son to the kindergarten.

The kindergarten is located in the middle of a street market and is decorated with English lettering. A children's song, Why Are You Crying, blared out into the street. All four female staff members wore face masks.

Kindergarten head Safa Hijazi contracted the coronavirus last year, and the three teachers undergo regular tests.

She said around 40 children returned on Sunday, compared to 100 students before the pandemic.

Some parents were afraid to bring their children back to school because of the pandemic, but most can no longer afford the $32 monthly fee, she said.

“The economic situation in Baqaa has become very difficult. Most families are trying to obtain bread instead of the internet, or liaising with schools or kindergartens,” Ms Hijazi said.

Most of Jordan's 4,379 official deaths from the coronavirus and 335,154 infections registered by the authorities have occurred in the last four months.

Children on their first day back to kindergarten in Al Baqa’a camp, following Covid-19 school closures. Amy McConaghy/ The National

The rise in cases forced the government to reimpose a curfew in November, which was mostly lifted in accordance with the king's directions last month. The authorities say the rate of increase in cases has been declining for weeks.

Health Minister Nazir Obeidat cautioned last week that vaccination rates remained small and there was significant disregard for social distancing.

He said 350 cases of the more contagious coronavirus strain first reported in Britain, and three cases of the strain reported in South Africa, had been discovered in Jordan.