Primary and secondary school students in their final year started returning to class on Monday in Cameroon after schools were suspended since March 18 due to the outbreak of coronavirus.
The country’s Minister of Secondary Education, Pauline Nalova Lyonga, said the move to progressively reopen schools will help children catch up on missed lessons and assist parents gradually returning to work.
“Most classes are effective and turnout is encouraging. The gradual reopening of schools is starting in the context of the easing of the measures the government has implemented,” Lyonga told reporters after an inspection tour of schools in the capital Yaounde.
Temperature checks, mask-wearing, customized school buses, designated routes to classrooms to prevent the gathering of crowds, the first school day back seemed special and safe for the students and pupils.
Among the schools reopening on Monday was Government Bilingual High School Deido, in the commercial capital, Douala, which had over 100 students in attendance.
Chanceline Olinga, 42, was in a socially distanced queue of parents as she dropped off her fourteen-year-old daughter Neola at the school gates.
“I was a bit anxious. It was great for me that she started school and more so for her because she really wanted to go back to school,” she said.
When Neola arrived at school, it was anything but familiar: classrooms were scrubbed, hand-sanitizing dispensers installed in hallways, desks configured one and a half meters apart and stickers lined the floors to remind students to keep their distance.
But the hardest thing for her was staying away from her friends.
Schools must ensure physical distancing and host no more than 24 people per room. The use of outdoor spaces is also encouraged, according to government guidelines.
“Make sure all the students are tested or screened before they enter the campus. This is compulsory,” governor of the Littoral region, Samuel Dieudonne Ivaha Diboua instructed some headteachers as he toured some schools in Douala.
At Government Bilingual High School Ekounou in Yaounde like in most schools nationwide, once students are screened, they are given a squirt of hand sanitizer before entering the school building at designated entrances.
The school was disinfected on the eve of the school resumption, said Roger Mendo Foumane, Principal of the school.
“For the safety of children, we have installed 25 water points and bought six thermoflash for taking temperatures before any access to the school campus,” he told Xinhua.
Students of the same class are divided into two groups and classrooms are cleaned before and after every group session and bathrooms are cleaned hourly, he said.
Similar measures were taken at Foundation Nursery and Primary School in Douala where kindergarten teacher, Lilian Mulah planned a “special first lesson” to help her pupils with physical distancing.
“Our first activity is going to be making some butterfly wings,” she told Xinhua.
Pupils will be wearing butterfly wings with some little balloons at the end that’s intended to give them a visual and physical cue they may be too close.
“If my balloon is touching someone else’s, then we are just too close to each other,” she said.
Mulah said she was inspired by schools in China that have implemented similar methods to help children grasp how far to stay apart.
Roughly half of her pupils returned to school.
However, some parents could not let their children come in the first week, expressing concerns that the government was making the wrong judgment by reopening schools too quickly.
Lyonga said she understood some parents’ concerns over sending their children back to class but added that the government had not undertaken a “dash” to restart schools.
“This is not a dash. The measures we have taken in schools are very cautious steps intended to keep the students safe,” she said.
The government hopes returning to school will provide students some structure and normalcy during an otherwise unusual time.
Cameroon reported its first coronavirus infection on March 6, an imported case from Europe, and has closed national borders and applied social distancing since March 18.
On April 30, Cameroonian Prime Minister, Joseph Dion Ngute announced that, the government decided to ease some of the social distancing restrictions by allowing bars and restaurants to run after 6 p.m., and lifting passenger number restriction in public transport.
Cameroon has reported more than 6,000 COVID-19 cases so far.