Hundreds of thousands of students in the Gaza Strip returned to schools Saturday after five months of closure, despite the ongoing pandemic that has seen school years postponed elsewhere across the globe.
The rare scene of normalcy in the Palestinian enclave came as the territory has so far been spared a serious outbreak of the coronavirus. There have been no known cases of community transmission among the 2 million residents of Gaza, which has been under an Israeli-Egyptian blockade since the militant Hamas group took power in 2007.
Some 285,000 students at U.N.-run schools and some 277,000 pupils at public schools were headed back to school this week. They were not required to wear masks or keep distancing, but teachers at U.N. Relief and Works Agency schools poured sanitizers on students' hands.
"We want everyone to realize that education amid (the) corona pandemic is different, and things don't proceed as they normally would," said Farid Abu-Athra, an education official with the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) in Gaza.
"So far in Gaza the situation is better, and it allows us to open schools normally," he said.
"The UNRWA did everything possible to secure smooth beginning of this school year by several measures to prepare, clean, disinfect schools and training workers on daily disinfection," said Farid Abu Athra, director of the agency's education program.
For August, students will resume classes they missed from the past year, with class sessions curtailed to four per day, recess canceled, and school canteens closed. Authorities are studying a full-fledged back-to-school start in September.
For Gaza's limited health care system, Hamas authorities have sought strict precautions to prevent an outbreak, largely shutting Gaza's border with Israel and Egypt where infections have spiked and imposing mandatory quarantine at designated facilities for all arrivals.
Seventy-eight people have tested positive for Covid-19 and a woman with underlying health issues died, all at the isolation centers. From the outset, the blockade has restricted movement in and out of Gaza mostly to its residents with humanitarian causes and workers of international aid groups.