Why Iran Reopens Schools Despite the Coronavirus Risk?

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By Pooya Stone

On September 5, schools were officially reopened across Iran. In his broadcasted remarks, President Hassan Rouhani congratulated the new academic year. However, this hasty decision has become an acute social dilemma and further to a social-political crisis in Iran.

“Schools in Iran reopened to 15 million students on Saturday after a seven-month closure despite concerns over the increased spread of the novel coronavirus in the country,” Reuters reported on the same day. Earlier, many health experts had warned about the irresponsible reopening of schools putting the health and lives of millions of students, teachers, and their families at risk.

“Several medical professionals have voiced concerns over the reopening of schools and universities in Iran, one of the countries worst-hit by the coronavirus pandemic in the Middle East,” Reuters added.

Iran Health Ministry Downplaying Coronavirus 

Both at the inauguration ceremony and the National Covid-19 Task Force meeting, Rouhani insisted on reopening of schools and education centers while the government still refrains from providing free or even low-price face masks for teachers and students. Instead, he criticized foreign media outlets for highlighting the state’s mismanagement and horrible decisions.

“Enemies do not want the country’s tasks to be done routinely. At all levels, they create an excuse and fiction every day,” Rouhani said. He also claimed that the enemies “want us to escape from the virus and shut down all functions.” Rouhani says we should not escape from the virus while he refused to deliver an in-person speech on the occasion of the schools’ inauguration. Previously, he did not attend the August 13 Majlis (Parliament) meeting despite all health protocols and preemptive measures.

Many officials, including several members of the Majlis (Parliament), announced their opposition to the reopening of schools and education centers. They also implicitly declared that they are concerned about the social-security consequences of this decision.

“Today, they reopened schools without notifying many of the teachers and principals. In many regions, the schools have not even been disinfected. We can’t allow the people’s health to be compromised like this,” the official news agency of the Majlis ICANA quoted Mohammad Hassan Asafari, chairman of the Majlis Security and Foreign Affairs Commission, as saying on September 6.

“The president considers himself an expert in every field and makes decisions that many of us oppose. One of these decisions is the reopening of schools, which we oppose,” said Hosseinali Shahryari, chairman of the Majlis Healthcare Commission, in an interview with Resalat daily on the same day.

Furthermore, former education minister Morteza Haji questioned Rouhani’s remarks in portraying a normal situation. “If threats do not exist for kids… Why did the president have to announce the school year’s start online while students have to stand in lines and attend classes? Logically, he should have gone to a school and shown that they have provided a safe environment and there is no problem for the students to attend school,” ILNA news agency quoted him as saying.

Also, Anush Barzigar, head of Gilan province Medical Apparatus, blamed the government and those who insisted on reopening of schools. “In our viewpoint, those who reopened schools will be responsible for the death of even one student or teacher, and this is an unforgivable mistake,” he said on September 5.

Earlier, Javan daily, affiliated to the Revolutionary Guard (IRGC), highlighted officials’ confusion in its September 4 edition. “The Education Ministry had no specific plan for reopening of schools until Thursday, September 3. These trails and errors will lead to the downfall of education,” Javan wrote.

On September 3, in a televised interview, the education minister Mohsen Haji-Mirzaei justified the dangerous decision to reopen schools and education centers. “The population of 62 percent of our classrooms is almost below 100 persons, 35 percent is 35 students, and 43 percent is below 50 pupils. Therefore, they can naturally observe distances protocols,” he claimed.

However, Ahmad Naderi, a member of the Majlis Education Commission, rejected the education minister’s explanations. “There are 600 students in several schools. These schools have only one or two washrooms, and classrooms are so tight that there is no guarantee to contain the spread of coronavirus,” he said.

In its September 5 edition, Resalat daily revealed dire hygienic conditions in public classrooms. “The reopening of schools and participating in a large number of students in code-red areas is a disaster. The situation of public classrooms is like the 1980s. Three students sit at each bench in classrooms with 35 to 45 pupils,” Resalat wrote.

On September 4, Abbas Aghazadeh, head of Medical Apparatus Organization, wrote an open letter to the National Covid-19 Task Force, criticizing the decision of reopening schools. “The Education Minister has said ‘All schools must reopen on Saturday, September 5, with students present in person.’ This ‘order’ does not fit the conditions of the Covid-19 pandemic and the ‘red’ status of most areas of the country… Endangering millions of students and teachers, and their families, and meddling in the experts’ work on addressing the virus by officials not involved in health affairs, can in the least possible of time become a humane catastrophe,” Mehr News Agency affiliated to the Ministry of Intelligence and Security quoted him as saying on the same day.

Why Iranian Officials Insist on Holding In-Person Classrooms?

“The reason for reopening in-person schools is relevant to the pressures implied by managers of non-profit schools for receiving stellar tuition fees,” Javan daily implicitly pointed out to the mafia’s role non-profit schools on September 4.

However, officials are concerned about socio-political concerns in addition to the economic interests of the mafia of non-profit schools. In this respect, Rouhani and the education minister revealed the government’s real worry.

“We have kept children inside homes for seven months. Holding children inside homes itself is a torment, is depression, is a mental problem,” Rouhani said at the National Covid-19 Task Force meeting.

“Interruption in education has both mental and psychological consequences for students and has short- and long-term consequences for society,” Haji-Mirzaei said.

In fact, officials are concerned about the protesting potential of millions of students, particularly high-school students, who played a crucial role in toppling the monarchic regime in 1979. During recent protests, including December 2017-January 2018, August 2018, November 2019, and January 2020, the young generation burdened lion share in anti-establishment moves.