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Gaza students back to school with few virus safety measures

Hundreds of thousands of students in the isolated Gaza Strip returned to schools after five months of closure, despite the ongoing pandemic that has seen school years postponed elsewhere across the globe.

The rare scene of normalcy in the Palestinian enclave came as the territory has so far been spared a serious outbreak of the coronavirus. There have been no known cases of community transmission among the 2 million residents of Gaza, which has been under an Israeli-Egyptian blockade since the militant Hamas group took power in 2007.

For Gaza’s limited health care system, Hamas authorities have sought strict precautions to prevent an outbreak, largely shutting Gaza’s border with Israel and Egypt where infections have spiked and imposing mandatory quarantine at designated facilities for all arrivals.

Students wave balloons on the first day of the new school year at the United-Nation run Elementary School at the Shati refugee camp in Gaza City, Saturday, Aug. 8, 2020. Schools run by both Palestinian government and the U.N. Refugee and Works Agency (UNRWA) have opened almost normally in the Gaza Strip after five months in which no cases of community transmission of the coronavirus had been recorded. (AP PhotoAdel Hana)

Seventy-eight people have tested positive for Covid-19 and a woman with underlying health issues died, all at the isolation centers. From the outset, the blockade has restricted movement in and out of Gaza mostly to its residents with humanitarian causes and workers of international aid groups.

With the virus at bay, 285,000 students at U.N.-run schools and some 277,000 pupils at public schools were headed back to school this week. They were not required to wear masks or keep distancing, but teachers at U.N. Relief and Works Agency schools poured sanitizers on students’ hands.

“The UNRWA did everything possible to secure smooth beginning of this school year by several measures to prepare, clean, disinfect schools and training workers on daily disinfection,” said Farid Abu Athra, director of the agency's education program.

Women bring their children to the United-Nation run Elementary School on the first day of the new school year at the Shati refugee camp in Gaza City, Saturday, Aug. 8, 2020. Schools run by both Palestinian government and the U.N. Refugee and Works Agency (UNRWA) have opened almost normally in the Gaza Strip after five months in which no cases of community transmission of the coronavirus had been recorded. (AP PhotoAdel Hana)

For August, students will resume classes they missed from the past year, with class sessions curtailed to four per day, recess canceled, and school canteens closed. Authorities are studying a full-fledged back-to-school start in September.

Students sit in their class on the first day of the new school year at the United-Nation run Elementary School at the Shati refugee camp in Gaza City, Saturday, Aug. 8, 2020. Schools run by both Palestinian government and the U.N. Refugee and Works Agency (UNRWA) have opened almost normally in the Gaza Strip after five months in which no cases of community transmission of the coronavirus had been recorded. (AP PhotoAdel Hana)

Teachers wear protective face masks while teaching class on the first day of the new school year at the United-Nation run Elementary School at the Shati refugee camp in Gaza City, Saturday, Aug. 8, 2020. Schools run by both Palestinian government and the U.N. Refugee and Works Agency (UNRWA) have opened almost normally in the Gaza Strip after five months in which no cases of community transmission of the coronavirus had been recorded. (AP PhotoAdel Hana)

A student walks to class on the first day of the new school year at the United-Nation run Elementary School at the Shati refugee camp in Gaza City, Saturday, Aug. 8, 2020. Schools run by both Palestinian government and the U.N. Refugee and Works Agency (UNRWA) have opened almost normally in the Gaza Strip after five months in which no cases of community transmission of the coronavirus had been recorded. (AP PhotoAdel Hana)

Students walk to the United-Nation run Elementary School on the first day of the new school year at the Shati refugee camp in Gaza City, Saturday, Aug. 8, 2020. Schools run by both Palestinian government and the U.N. Refugee and Works Agency (UNRWA) have opened almost normally in the Gaza Strip after five months in which no cases of community transmission of the coronavirus had been recorded. (AP PhotoAdel Hana)

Women walk with their children on the first day of the new school year at the United-Nation run Elementary School at the Shati refugee camp in Gaza City, Saturday, Aug. 8, 2020. Schools run by both Palestinian government and the U.N. Refugee and Works Agency (UNRWA) have opened almost normally in the Gaza Strip after five months in which no cases of community transmission of the coronavirus had been recorded. (AP PhotoAdel Hana)