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Schools out still
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 17 - 09 - 2009

The start of the school year may be delayed even further, reports Reem Leila
The Council of Governors held an emergency meeting on Thursday 10 September to discuss ways to halt the spread of swine flu. The council, chaired by Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif, agreed to a one week postponement of the beginning of the school year, to 3 October, amid growing fears that the return of Egyptian omra pilgrims later this month could bring a new influx of carriers.
On Sunday the Ministers of Education and Health took part in a joint videoconference at the Ministry of Education. They said that the situation in schools, when they do open, would be monitored on a daily basis.
"A daily meeting will take place between the ministries of health, education and higher education to evaluate the situation," said Health Minister Hatem El-Gabali. In cases where a single pupil in a class contracts the virus, El-Gabali continued, "all classmates will be tested and remain at home for two weeks. Where cases in a single school occur in different classes the school will be closed. The public should also bear in mind that the academic year could yet be subject to further postponement".
Minister of Education Yosri El-Gamal said his ministry would coordinate with all schools in order to ensure that absentees were genuinely ill.
"Students should not stay at home out of fear of the virus," he said. El-Gamal also announced that the Educational Projects Support Fund would make LE40 million available to be distributed among schools to offset the costs of purchasing soap and disinfectants for pupils.
The ministry is also distributing 17,000 information folders to schools in an attempt to raise awareness among both teachers and students on how to combat swine flu. There are plans for an additional 53,000 folders to be distributed among Egypt's 39,000 schools before the start of the academic year. El-Gamal also said that should the beginning of the academic year be further postponed satellite channels will be used to broadcast educational programmes to ensure pupils do not fall behind in the curriculum.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) has advised governments to close schools should rates of infection reach one per cent of pupils.
"The WHO is not calling on governments to cancel the school year but to be alert," says John Jabbour, Cairo-based WHO emerging diseases specialist. "Until now the status of H1N1 flu in Egypt is mild and can be handled but we have no idea what the situation will be like tomorrow, or even in the coming few hours. It could get worse or better. We have to wait and see."
The ministers of education and health say school doctors and headmasters who fail to act according to regulations will face heavy penalties.
"We will not accept excuses," El-Gabali stated. "Visiting doctors hired to make regular school visits to monitor the situation must stick to their schedules. Headmasters who fail to report cases of swine flu will be severely penalised. There can be no excuses."
The health minister added that, "if the percentage of infection reaches one per cent among school students, the country's schools will close and the entire academic year will be postponed."
Egypt has stockpiled five million packs of Tamiflu, the drug used to treat swine flu, and signed deals to receive 10 million additional doses in the coming months.
In October 80,000 packets are due to be delivered, an additional two million in January, with the rest arriving in March.
"The October consignment will be allocated to health sector staff and returning pilgrims who have contracted the disease," said El-Gabali.
The health minister praised the governor of Alexandria for drafting in senior year medical students to do the school rounds and recommended that other governorates follow suit.
Both El-Gabali and El-Gamal have asked parents to remain calm.
"Cases will peak between November and February," says El-Gabali. "Parents shouldn't overact to the news that swine flu has been detected in their children's schools. Nor should they refrain from sending their children to school during the first week of term. This would paralyse the educational process and has no real preventive value. It would be far more useful simply to provide your children with a bar of soap."
El-Gabali said that he anticipated that hajj pilgrimage trips this year would soon be cancelled, especially given this year's hajj season takes place in December, when the flu virus is expected to be at its most active. He also warned that, "it is very possible that there will be further postponements of the academic year, possibly in the second half of December, January and February, depending on the situation". He raised the possibility of school continuing into the summer vacation to make up for any time lost.
Education experts question the efficacy of such delays, with MP Omar Sherif, head of the People's Assembly Education Committee, asking what possible difference it could make.
"What do they expect to achieve? Why not close the metro, cinemas, theatres, football matches and supermarkets? Why the schools? This is not a solution."
Hossam Badrawi, head of the National Democratic Party's Education Committee, agrees.
"Very few countries have postponed the academic year. It is not being recommended by the WHO. The more we panic the less effective our actions are likely to be," he warned.
The WHO has reported 3,491 deaths from the swine flu virus worldwide. In the Middle East, where 9,945 cases have been reported, 81 have resulted in the death of the patient.
Egypt's Ministry of Health has recorded 886 cases of swine flu, 784 of which have fully recovered. According to El-Gabali, the fatality rate of the virus worldwide is 0.9 per cent whereas the percentage in Egypt is 0.2.

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