As term begins for private schools, many report poor turnout amid confusion over official requirements to counter the virus.
Swine flu fears keep pupils home
Many schools beginning their new terms this week did so with paltry attendance levels and swine flu measures that went against directives issued last week by health and education authorities. Authorities met administrators and staff from some private schools in Sharjah and Abu Dhabi last Thursday to present a plan for dealing with the virus. The institutions were told to open on schedule rather than postponing classes, and to allow pupils who had recently returned from abroad to attend. Health officials instructed schools to set up isolation rooms for children who became sick at school, and to send home any who show influenza-like symptoms. Sick children should stay off school for at least seven days, and not be allowed back until they had been off medication for 24 hours. Many private schools in Dubai, however, reported that they had not received any instructions. And since not all schools in the capital have attended the official training, some have developed their own contingency plans, which range from installing handwash dispensers in bathrooms to requiring pupils to wear masks. Although the Ministry of Education prescribes health and safety regulations, until recently schools were not inspected regularly to ensure compliance. Inspections were introduced in Dubai last year and will begin in Abu Dhabi this year, though the capital's 71 villa schools were inspected last year. Al Noor Indian Islamic School in Abu Dhabi has given pupils masks, which they have to wear during the school day, and parents had been told to keep children at home for a week if they have been abroad. Mohamad Haris, the principal, said attendance was "very low" but thought that might be due to confusion over whether or school was due to start after Ramadan. Mary Thomas, principal of the Little Flower school in Abu Dhabi, said Al Noor was being over cautious. She had sent staff to the meeting in Abu Dhabi last week and was following the directives. Mrs Thomas added that she had received several calls from "panicked" parents concerned that pupils had been given face masks at Al Noor but not at Little Flower. The American Community School in Abu Dhabi has also followed the advice from the authorities. "They sent home a handout and there has been information from the nurse," said one mother who gave her name as Kirsty. She added that teaching children about hygiene and keeping sick children out of school should be enough. Dr Jon Craig, a GP at the American Hospital Dubai, said making children wear masks at school was not necessary, and that schools should focus more on maintaining good hygiene. "If you are going to prevent the spread of germs and viruses then basic precautions such as sneezing into tissues, disposing of them and then washing your hands are the basic hygiene principles." Dr Craig said putting the start of school back a few weeks would simply delay the spread of the virus but not stop it. "There is a public panic about swine flu but the reality is it is not as severe an illness as people initially thought it could be," he said. He reiterated the message that those in the high-risk groups - very elderly, very young, pregnant women and people with chronic diseases - should see a doctor as soon as symptoms appeared. Anxiety about swine flu has led many parents to keep their children at home and at least five schools have postponed the beginning of term. Al Majd Indian school in Dubai has put the start of classes back by a week after parents raised concerns. Rafiq Rahim, the principal, said the decision was taken last week after meetings with staff and parents. "We are going to give out a questionnaire to parents and some students on the first day back so we can understand their fears. There is no point in starting school if there is a panic." Other schools have also reported mass absences, particularly among younger pupils. "Attendance is very low," said Mrs Thomas, who estimated that between 20 and 40 per cent of pupils had been at her school's first day. Rashmi Nandkeolyar, the principal of the Delhi Private School in Dubai, said that when it opened on Sunday just 40 per cent of pupils of nursery age were present. Mrs Nandkeolyar said she had not been given any instructions by federal authorities; instead, she said, the school had put an improvised plan in place to contain any swine flu infection. "We are not keeping any children who even have the slightest fever," she said. "Attendances are slightly lower than normal in our Asian schools but this could be due to a number of factors, including H1N1 concerns," said Richard Forbes, director of communications and marketing for Gems, the largest private school operator in the UAE. "We have heard some parents will monitor the H1N1 situation in their children's school over the first few days before allowing their children to begin school." Julie Kutepova, the vice principal of the British Orchard Nursery in Dubai, said her school was taking "many" preventive measures. "All our teachers who are back to school have been tested and have medical certificates saying they do not have the virus or symptoms. "The school nurse also takes the children's temperatures every morning." The nursery was currently running a summer camp, but would reopen properly next week. Like the Little Flower School, the Abu Dhabi Indian School, whose term started yesterday, reported that it was following government directives. It had set up an isolation room, installed dispensers of hand sanitiser in the bathrooms, and sent literature home to parents about H1N1. Vijay Mathu, the principal, said there was a drop in attendance in the lower years yesterday, but it was not dramatic. The Government has also told schools to encourage frequent hand washing, and to supply tissues, soap, and hand-sanitisers. But some will struggle to comply, particularly the capital's crowded villa schools. Dr Daniel Sistona, the principal at the Pioneer International Private School, is awaiting funds from the school's owner to implement the rules. The school - which charges Dh5,000 per year for preschool and Dh9,000 for Grade 10, does not have enough washrooms for frequent hand washing - there are just eight between 500 children and not all are equipped with hand sanitiser dispensers. Other villa schools are in similar positions. A pupil at one said the bathrooms were already unhygienic and nothing had been done to improve things in the light of H1N1. email@example.com firstname.lastname@example.org