In Egypt, the schools are closed. A twelve-year-old teaches maths, English and religion in her home village.
Two water buffaloes are peacefully chewing their cud. Somewhat bored, they look at the village school opposite Itmiah, a small town in Egypt's Nile Delta, a two-hour drive from Cairo. Not much is going on: the school that is located next to a field on the edge of the village, has been closed since the beginning of the year because of the Corona pandemic, like all schools in the country. Instead of the usual shouting of the children during breaks: silence in the three-storey building. Only the fluttering of the Egyptian flag in the wind can be heard.
While in Germany parents complain about the hardships of online home-schooling during Corona and the consequences for families and children, in other parts of the world the pandemic means a total cessation of classes. According to estimates by the Egyptian Ministry of Communications, 52 percent of the population has no internet connection. In the village of Itmiah, hardly any children know the luxury of having their own computer. For them, as for most of the other 19 million pupils in the Nile country's public school system, the closure of their school means the complete cancellation of lessons.
If it weren’t for Reem El-Khoury. She is something of a heroine in Egyptian everyday education - a very young heroine. Reem herself is just twelve years old. Every morning she sets up her blackboard on the rough outer brick wall of her modest house. Then she spreads a large mat on the village street which serves as a classroom for the next few hours. Everything is ready for the first lesson of the day for the children from the neighbourhood. Today, a good dozen children gather, sit down on the mat and spread schoolbooks and notebooks on the floor. Like Reem, almost all of them with a face mask.
Reem in jeans, in her cream-coloured blouse, with long wide sleeves and her wine-red headscarf already looks like a real Egyptian teacher. She teaches Arabic, mathematics, English and religion to children up to the age of nine. What originally started as a game has evolved into a substitute for the lessons lost in Corona times. "When Corona started, the children played all day long in the street of the village. I thought it would be better to teach them. We started with our textbooks and notebooks. Then someone in the village donated the blackboard to me“, she says.
Reems describes her day: Every morning now, she gives lessons in front of her house. After that she studies her own material at home in order to stay update to date when school opens again. In the evening she prepares the next lesson for the other children, She has a natural authority, and all the children listen attentively and want to impress her with their answers. "Reem said, come, let's play something new. We brought notebooks and pens and started writing," says eight-year-old Muhammad, who sits on the front part of the mat and eagerly takes notes.
Reem conducts the lessons based on what she knows from her own village school. She writes a word in Arabic and English slowly on the blackboard and checks her textbook again to make sure everything is correct. Then she points to the board and calls out "kitab", the Arabic word for book, "yaani" (which means) and "book". From a dozen little mouths this is repeated passionately and loudly, "Kitab yaani book", followed by an "Assad yaani lion". "Assad means lion." But Reem's real passion is mathematics. She says that she definitely wants to be a maths teacher when she grows up.
Proud of the village's achievement, some of the mothers also watch the lessons. Reem's teacher from the village school is also present. "Reem is always very attentive and smart in school. Then Corona came. At first, I thought they were just playing, but then I saw that my daughter pays better attention in Reem's lessons than when I teach her at home," says Shaima Adallah. No one can say when the real school will reopen: "We are waiting for a decision from the school authorities," she explains.
Reem, meanwhile, has called a recess and in that second, she transforms from teacher to child again as she romps through the village alleys playing tag with her pupils. After half an hour, recess is over. Enthusiastically, her pupils run back to the teaching mat, jumping and tumbling over their books and booklets to take their seats on the mat in the village alley again. There are probably few places in this world where pupils return to class so enthusiastically after a break.
Once again it is quiet and only the braying of a donkey a few alleys away can be heard, who obviously refuses to pull his cart any further through the village. The children are waiting for their young teacher Reem to continue her lessons. With her modest means, Reem is celebrating a tiny educational victory every day on the Egyptian Corona front in her village in the Nile Delta.
Source: With friendly permission by the author.
First published by Rheinische Post of 6 February 2021
cc. On 2 March 2021 the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) published a study on the extent and consequences of school closures as a result of the Corona pandemic, particularly in the world’s poorer countries. The press release of 2 March 2021 stated: “Schools for more than 168 million children globally have been completely closed for almost an entire year due to COVID-19 lockdowns, according to new data released today by UNICEF. Furthermore, around 214 million children globally – or 1 in 7 – have missed more than three-quarters of their in-person learning.” It continues: “Two-thirds of those countries are in Latin America and the Caribbean, affecting nearly 98 million schoolchildren. Of the 14 countries, Panama has kept schools closed for the most days, followed by El Salvador, Bangladesh, and Bolivia.”
“School closures have devastating consequences for children’s learning and wellbeing. The most vulnerable children and those unable to access remote learning are at an increased risk of never returning to the classroom, and even being forced into child marriage or child labour. According to latest data by UNESCO, more than 888 million children worldwide continue to face disruptions to their education due to full and partial school closures. The majority of schoolchildren worldwide rely on their schools as a place where they can interact with their peers, seek support, access health and immunization services and a nutritious meal. The longer schools remain closed, the longer children are cut off from these critical elements of childhood”.
The figures given by UNICEF do not reflect the full extent of the school closures. There are no figures for East, South, West, Central Africa, Europe and Central Asia. UNICEF calls attention to the need for governments to prioritise the reopening of schools.
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