AL-MUKALLA: Thousands of Yemeni students have returned to schools and universities in government-controlled areas amid strong warnings against ignoring coronavirus safety measures.
Wearing new uniforms and carrying bags, secondary school students stepped into classes this week for the first time since March when the government shut down the country and closed schools over coronavirus fears.
Yemen recoded its first infection on April 10 in the southeastern province of Hadramout.
The Aden-based national coronavirus committee on Tuesday announced five new cases and three deaths in Shabwa and Hadramout provinces, bringing the total number of cases in government-controlled areas to 1,994, including 576 fatalities and 1,203 recoveries.
Infections have largely slowed, with local health facilities reporting fewer coronavirus patients, the committee said.
The internationally recognized government said it took the decision to reopen schools following recommendations from health experts and commitments from school authorities to apply social distancing and other safety measures, such as wearing masks.
However, despite government warnings, safety measures have largely been abandoned in schools and universities, with students complaining about overcrowded classes and a lack of proper ventilation.
Abdullah, a secondary school student from Al-Mukalla who preferred to be known by his first name, said that classes are crammed with students.
“We sweat a lot inside crowded classes as there is no electricity,” he said.
In Al-Mukalla, the power is shut down for up to 12 hours daily and schools have no generators.
University students also appeared indifferent to health warnings. Students hugged each other and gathered in large groups inside campuses without masks or social distancing.
“No one is wearing a mask or applying any of the measures. The university is like the street,” Mohammed, a student at Hadramout university, told Arab News.
On state media, government officials posed for images outside schools where students were wearing masks and maintaining physical distance.
Private schools in the government-controlled areas largely adhered to safety measures by disinfecting buildings and asking students to wear masks.
But in a country where most people live below the poverty line, buying a mask daily could add a financial burden to already strained families. The cost of a medical mask is 300 Yemeni rial or 30 cents.
Yemeni officials blamed students for not adhering to social distancing guidelines inside schools and university campus.
“We distributed masks and hand sanitizers free to students. Unfortunately, they take masks and put them in their pockets,” Prof. Mohammed Awadh Barashed, dean of the college of arts at Hadramout University, told Arab News.
“From next week, we will not allow students without masks to enter exam rooms. We opened new classes to increase physical distances between students,” Barashed said.
Officials admit that they might not be able to follow safety measures permanently because of the cost.
Yemeni universities are short of space and face a large rise in the number of new students. Keeping students apart would require new buildings and safety equipment that cash-strapped intuitions cannot afford due to the war, officials said.
In Aden, schools have been closed since early this year, even before the coronavirus outbreak, due to a strike by teachers demanding a salary increase and unpaid increment of thousands of Yemeni riyals.
On Tuesday, the teachers’ union in Aden said it would partially lift the strike after receiving pledges from the new governor, Ahmed Lamlis, to meet their demands when the province receives its budget from the government.
In Houthi-controlled areas, schools have yet to reopen, residents told Arab News.
The rebels have issued new regulations to private schools, asking them to highlight “crimes of aggression” in reference to Arab coalition military operations in the country.
Yemen’s Minister of Information Muammar Al-Iryani said that the Houthis are seeking to recruit new fighters through those programs.
“The Iran-backed militia is forcing owners of private schools to implement its programs of mobilizing school students and throwing them on to the battlefield, brainwashing them with extremist ideas, and producing a generation of terrorists who threaten Yemen’s and world’s security,” he said on Twitter.