Iraqi schools have opened their doors to 10 million students for the first time since the country entered a COVID-19 lockdown in late February.
Iraq’s public schools are expected to operate six days a week, instead of five, in a bid to maintain physical distancing in what were once classrooms that could easily host more than 50 students.
Elementary school pupils are set to attend class one day a week, while older students will be required to go twice a week. The rest of their learning will take place online.
Mohammed, a young English teacher from the town of Karma in Anbar province, said both he and his students were excited to return to the classroom after eight months of online learning.
“COVID-19 is a problem, but we will have the necessary preventions. There will be three metres [nine feet] between students,” he said.
But keeping excitable children in check can be a daunting task. “We are sure that they won’t be careful, and won’t wear their masks all the time,” 38-year-old Imad Mohammed Farhan said of his two sons, aged 14 and 11.
The father of three from Fallujah said he and his wife were “terrified” of their boys returning to school. But added: “They miss school so much.”
‘Devastating reversal’ of education gains
According to UNHCR, of boys and girls enrolled in formal primary and secondary school prior to the outbreak of COVID-19, “fewer than half continued schooling at home after physical school closures”.
“Unless we prioritise children’s learning, we will likely see a devastating reversal in the education gains we’ve made in recent years,” Zeina Awad, UNICEF’s spokesperson in Iraq, told Al Jazeera.
“Rising inequality, poor health outcomes, violence, child labour and child marriage are just some of the long-term threats for children who miss out on their learning.”
But not everyone is convinced that schools should open just yet. Local media reported two weeks ago that Iraq’s Parliamentary Health and Environment Committee did not approve.
“The education ministry’s decision to reopen schools is incorrect, as it cannot control the number of students and preventive measures,” said one of the committee members in light of the imminent re-opening.
“The issued decision stipulates the presence of 15 students in each class, but the truth for each class is about 50 students and much more than that in elementary schools.”
Iraq has recorded more than 547,000 cases of COVID-19 since its first case was confirmed in February, according to the World Health Organization.
Charity Save the Children warned in July of an “unprecedented global education emergency” as a result of COVID-19 lockdowns. It said children in 12 countries are at extremely high risk of dropping out of school forever, while in another 28 countries they are at moderate or high risk of not going back to school.