Students Return to School in Morocco Against Backdrop of COVID-19

September 7 marked the first day of school in Morocco. Photo: Saad dine El otmani/Facebook

Rabat – The onset of a new school year is usually an exciting time for students, teachers, and parents. This week, however, some seven million primary and secondary students in Morocco are returning to school — some in-person, some online — with the added burden of the COVID-19 crisis. 

On March 13, when Morocco had confirmed only eight cases of COVID-19, the Ministry of Education decided to suspend all in-person education activities nationwide to keep educators, students, and staff safe and to limit the spread of the virus.

Students at all levels finished the 2019-2020 academic year remotely and baccalaureate candidates sat for socially-distant exams in July. The Ministry of Education celebrated the success of its remote education platforms while NGOs and celebrities donated tech supplies to rural and low-income students to help them access virtual lessons. 

Despite these initiatives, Morocco’s government is not ignorant of the fact that COVID-19 deprived a vast number of students of education. Many lacked the technical means to keep up with remote lessons while others simply lost the motivation to study outside of the classroom. 

As students, parents, and teachers began preparing with little clarity for the start of the 2020-2021 academic year, public opinion divided over the remote vs. in-person education debate. 

Weighing in-person classes against remote education

Some advocated for the continuation of distance education to ensure the safety of pupils and teachers. Others implored the government to permit students to attend in-person lessons. Many called for the delay of the school year altogether, which the ministry said was “not possible.” 

Aware of the concerns surrounding education access disparities for students in Morocco, the Ministry of Education gave parents the choice to carry on with remote lessons or send their children to school in-person. An overwhelming majority — 80% — chose the latter. 

While remote education is not a viable option for many students, resuming in-person lessons as the COVID-19 pandemic continues its rapid spread comes with its own set of challenges. 

The Ministry of Education’s 60-page health protocol limits the number of students permitted in classrooms and on buses and includes other social distancing rules that may be unrealistic for schools already suffering from overcrowding. Small-group lessons and new disinfection and communication requirements also strain understaffed institutions. 

Many schools will likely be able to adjust to Morocco’s new reality and keep students and teachers safe. Others may become overwhelmed by safety standards that are potentially unattainable in low-resource settings and return to business as usual, putting students, staff, and their families at risk of spreading COVID-19. 

Should a household member fall ill or a neighborhood become a COVID-19 hotspot, students will have to resort to remote education. Those with no television, mobile phones, computers, or internet in the home will fall behind. Children with working parents left to their own devices may also be inclined to forgo virtual lessons. Low-income families may pull students from school altogether in favor of work opportunities.   

Morocco’s cautious return to school

As a developing, lower-middle-income country, Morocco finds itself in a precious situation. On paper, a safe return to school is feasible, as is the implementation of distance education mechanisms. The reality in many parts of the country, however, is not as clear-cut. 

School only just began on Monday, but concerns of overcrowded and unhygienic classrooms are already mounting, and the alarming surge in COVID-19 cases could not be more ill-timed. 

On Sunday, as Morocco confirmed a record-high 2,234 new COVID-19 cases, the education ministry canceled plans for in-person lessons in Casablanca — Morocco’s most populous city — and other cities such as Sidi Yahia El Gharb.  

Still, the Moroccan government is confident in the commitment of parents and teachers to ensuring the continuity of education no matter how the COVID-19 pandemic may evolve. 

Head of Government Saad Eddine El Othmani said Monday that although the current COVID-19 situation requires “more responsibility” to ensure the successful resumption of school, the country should not lose hope. 

“Thanks to the synergy of our efforts, we have achieved successes and avoided the worst during the first phase of the pandemic in Morocco,” he said, according to Morocco’s state media. 

But “we have observed in these last two months worrying developments which require greater vigilance,” he stressed. 

Morocco’s government will spare no effort to ensure the success of the 2020-2021 school year, El Othmani continued. He called on the nation to commit to supporting students, school employees, and parents’ associations in these unprecedented circumstances.   

“It is not an adventure, but an ordeal that we can overcome together … for the good of our children.”