For Khalaf Malkouf, Covid-19 is only the latest challenge in his struggle to bring education to children in his hometown in Iraq.
Before the coronavirus pandemic struck, the headmaster and founder of the Al Makarim elementary school in Yousifiyah, a middle-class rural suburb of Baghdad, was already struggling for funding in the absence of any support from the government.
Now, the school has to deal with the disruption to lessons caused by Covid-19, as well as the safety measures introduced by the government to prevent the spread of infections.
"The biggest challenge in this school year is coronavirus," Mr Malkouf told The National in an interview in one of the caravans from which his school operates.
The 300 school pupils at Al Makarim are among the 10 million who returned to classes on November 29. The government delayed the start of the new school year by nearly two months because of the high rate of new coronavirus infections.
Iraq is now reporting about 2,000 infections a day – nearly half the level in October – with more than 564,000 confirmed cases and 12,400 deaths as of December 7, according to a tally kept by John Hopkins University.
Schools in Iraq had been shut since the pandemic hit in late February, prompting authorities to impose lockdowns. Many pupils had already missed classes because of anti-government protests that swept the capital and southern cities since October last year.
To make up for lost time, schools will open six days a week instead of five, with each level attending class once a week, Education Ministry spokesman Haider Farouq told The National.
Health precautions include physical distancing and the use of face masks and gloves, limiting classes to 15 students, and regular sanitisation of classrooms.
Families have the option to not send their children for classes and only to the mid-year and final exams. The ministry has launched applications for online classes and a TV channel for children opting to learn from home, Mr Farouq said.
“We’ll evaluate the situation after two or three weeks from now to see whether everything is going well or we need to adjust plans or adopt new ones,” he said.
“Keeping the wheel moving slowly is better than keeping it idle.”
Private schools and some public ones in central Baghdad are well equipped for the new situation, but those in poor or rural areas such as Yousifiyah struggle to cope.
Mr Malkouf set up Al Makarim in July 2018 on a dunum (3,750 square metres) of privately donated land in his hometown, with 10 caravans supplied by the Baghdad provincial council that had been used for about five years in camps for displaced people.
“The caravans were in a very bad state and needed money and work to repair and refurbish,” he said.
With donations from local residents for the repairs and furniture, the school was up and running three months later. Newly graduated teachers volunteered to work free for the first year, while the school was waiting for funds to be allocated by the federal government.
The road to the school is unpaved, and the caravan roofs leak, letting in winter rains that damage the floors, but it provides a much-needed option for local familiies.
“The nearest school that our students used to attend was about 12 kilometres away where more than 700 pupils crammed in overcrowded classrooms in two shifts,” Mr Malkouf said.
Mr Malkouf, 47, began his career as a teacher and later worked as deputy headmaster in two other schools in the area before starting Al Makarim.
Al Makarim is one of hundreds of schools in the country forced to operate out of caravans because of the lack of government funding for proper infrastructure. Iraq’s failure to improve basic services since 2003, when a US-led invasion ended Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship, was one of the grievances that sparked the protests last year.
Despite receiving hundreds of billions of dollars in oil revenue and international aid, successive governments failed to ensure a regular power supply, clean water, sewage treatment and other public services.
A sharp drop in oil prices since the coronavirus pandemic hit global travel and economic activity has left the government struggling even to pay salaries in the public sector, its biggest expenditure.
Meanwhile, operating amid the health crisis has placed an extra burden on schools and the families of their pupils.
At Al Makarim, teachers donate nearly one quarter of their salaries to a maintenance fund and to pay for Covid-19 safety measures, such as a sanitisation booth, disinfectant sprays for the classrooms, hand sanitisers and face masks for pupils who cannot afford them.
“Now, we are in a war against coronavirus to keep illiteracy away from our children who forgot everything over the past period” when schools were closed, Mr Malkouf said.
Despite the precautions, some families are wary of sending their children to school and have opted to have them learn online.
“Even if they practise physical distancing in the classrooms, the children can’t adhere to the rules for hours, especially when they eat or drink or use the bathroom,” said Noor Abdullah, a mother of two in Baghdad.
“We got the books and will have them study at home while following up with the teachers on online platforms, and we’ll evaluate the situation from time to time,” she said.
But most families cannot afford smartphones or computers for their children to study online, while poor electricity supply and internet make it hard for them to follow up, Mr Malkouf said.
In a country where the poverty rate is expected to rise to 31.7 per cent by the end of this year from 20 per cent in 2018, because of the socio-economic effects of the pandemic, buying a smartphone is a distant dream.
An internet subscription – which costs at least $50 a month – is a luxury for many. Even then, the connection is unreliable and relatively slow. In October, Iraq ranked 101st globally for fixed broadband connections, with an average speed of 28.9 Mbps, and 127th for mobile connectivity with an average speed of 12.95 Mbps, according to the Ookla Speedtest Global Index released last month.
Despite spending more than $62 billion on electricity since 2003, according to Prime Minister Mustafa Al Kadhimi, many Iraqi cities and towns still experience severe power cuts. In Yousifiyah, the failures sometimes last for more than 12 hours a day.
"Distance learning in rural areas is very hard and it is impossible to bear fruits given the lengthy power outage and internet problems," Mr Malkouf said.