• Sufia Alam

Behind the screen: teaching in Egypt during COVID-19

Updated: Dec 29, 2020

This week, we will be highlighting our 2020 heroes, featuring teachers from around the world.

Join us as we share how they made the classroom work for them either virtually or in person during an era of required lockdowns and quarantines. To read our previous feature, click here.

Cairo, Egypt: Since the pandemic, it sometimes feels like Jemela Zeinou, lives two different lives. One as a homeschool teacher and the other as your typical, traditional second grade teacher at Green Valley private school.

Some days, you’ll find the determined instructor planning her virtual lessons with an ambitious goal to guarantee the lesson will hold the attention of her second graders for the entirety of the virtual class.

That means no students dozing off (which has only happened a few times) in the early morning, no students absentmindedly staring at the carpet, and finally, no students leaving the room and their electronic device to go play with their siblings instead.

If you have any sort of tip or trick, chances are Jamela’s already tried it.

Creating games and quizzes to recap the lesson with resources such as Kahoot, or using props such as dolls in the lesson - she’s put them all to the test. (Though pitting her students against one another through competitive games, seems to be the most constructive.)

During the two days Jamela is teaching in person, she's in her brightly decorated classroom teaching her 7-8 year old students.

Jameela commutes to Green Valley School twice a week with her two children who also attend the school, Bilal and Omar.

Now, she speaks in a much louder voice to make sure her students hear her despite the barrier of the mask. You’ll also see her constantly reminding her students to not touch each other and stay in their seats, which are arranged to be six feet apart.

The other three days, Jamela teaches from home. But while she may be relieved from getting her kids ready and commuting duty, she’s found that virtual lessons bring complex, other nuances.

“Online classes here start at 7:50 am, and I try to wake up by 7:30 am because I have my own kids,” Jamela explains. “I wake them up first, get them breakfast, open their laptops, freshen them up, and make sure they are ready for their own day.”

Not every student nor herself may always have reliable internet access.

“It’s an embarrassment. I’m the teacher and I have connection problems. It ruins the session.”

During her teaching from home days, Jemela has five sessions back to back starting from 7:50 am to 1:30 pm.

That means with only small breaks between each class, her students are seated in front of a laptop for over five hours at a time.

“As a teacher and a parent in COVID times,” she says taking a deep breath. “It's not easy.”

For Jamela, a parent and teacher, fighting for the attention of her second graders is only half her struggle. Her sons, Bilal (5) and Omar (7) also require that their mom be attentive during their virtual classes as well.

“He (Bilal, 5) knows how to mute and unmute himself in classes but sometimes he needs help,” Jamela explains. “If I have a class the same time he has a class, I have to jump between my classes and help him.”

Unfortunately sometimes if Jamela is busy teaching her classes, Bilal won’t sit in his.

With the worldwide debate of the risks and benefits of sending students back to in person classes, some schools have rolled back on COVID-19 precautions by returning full time.

“My school, they are really worried about the kids, so they’re scared to add a day or two for them to come in,” Jamela says. “I mean, what are you going to do? It’s hard. And it’s not effective, I don’t think.”

According to Tarek Shawki, the Minister of Education in Egypt, schools as a whole are reporting less infection among students, teachers, and administrators in the K-12 system. They remain relatively low, at around 300 cases reported in schools nationwide since the beginning of the school year this past September.

Since Jamela teaches at a private school, almost all of her students come from financially secure families. It’s not uncommon for a family to share at least one laptop.

Jamela shares that her situation is better than most other teachers in Egypt.

Even before the coronavirus outbreak, it is estimated that around 49.9% (45 million) of the total population of Egypt lives in poverty with 26.3 percent living in extreme poverty, according to the United Nations.

While all teachers at Green Valley are required to wear a mask, for students it’s optional. Additional safety implementations have also been placed to ensure the safety of the faculty and student bodies.

Each classroom is sectioned into two different parts via two lines of bright red tape stuck on the floor. The tape signifies when teachers are allowed to have their mask on and off.

Each side of the tape signifies when teacher may have their mask off and on. Photo courtesy of Jamela Zeinou.

One one end of the tape, masks must be worn at all times for teachers. This is the bottom / left section of the classroom where all students are seated.

On the front end of the classroom, coined ‘teacher zone’ where the board and Jamela’s desk is, is where teachers may have their mask down, according to Green Valley School.

While some students observe the mask, wearing it and

wearing it properly are two different realities.

“Once I had a kid wiping the table with it,” Jamela fondly remembers and shares with a smile. “I always have to remind them, if you’re not going to wear them, put it away.”

As Jamela predicted, a second wave of the COVID-19 has reached Egypt, and with that, online learning will have to continue for the foreseeable future. A routine that began with the coronavirus has turned into a daily routine, one where waking at 7:30am to open a laptop and begin the day isn’t something out of the ordinary anymore.

Like everyone else Jamela has aspirations for the future, “I hope life gets back to normal and semi normal as soon as possible.”

This week we will be highlighting our 2020 heroes, featuring teachers from around the world. Join us as we share how they made the classroom work for them either virtually or in-person during an era of required lockdowns and quarantine.

In the meantime, you can hit subscribe below to stay up to date on all things Camellias, or you can find Camellias on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook

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