ALGIERS—Chronic back and neck pain, severe exhaustion and postural deviation prevented fourth-grade student Suaad from going to school.
Her parents didn’t give much thought to the issues until they noticed an abnormal curve in Suaad’s spine and took her to an orthopedist. She was diagnosed with mild scoliosis from carrying heavy loads on her back for long periods of time.
Saad’s case is not unusual: Doctors say many of Algeria’s more than 8 million students—particularly those of primary-school age—suffer from scoliosis, an abnormal curvature of the spine that can result from carrying too many heavy books.
With a fourth grader carrying as many as a dozen books, each one weighing around 1.5 kilos, the weight of children’s backpacks illustrates requirements to memorize texts instead of discuss ideas.
“Sometimes they intentionally leave some books at home to reduce the weight of their bags, and eventually they start to hate their schools and teachers, and think of dropping out,” said Ali Shebittah, professor of pedagogical sociology at Setif University.
Scoliosis leads to a narrowing of the chest cavity housing and constricts the organs, causing pain, fatigue and exhaustion, said Moustafa Al-Khaiaty, president of the National Authority for Health Care and Scientific Research Development and head of the Pediatrics Department at Al-Harash Hospital.
“Scoliosis constricts the lung cavity, causing difficulty in breathing,” Al-Khaiaty said.
The weight and quality of backpacks, in addition to the way they are lifted, can all lead to the medical condition, Al-Khaiaty said. He added that parents should be aware of the importance of selecting good-quality backpacks and teaching their children how to lift them. At the very least, children should not use a cloth or canvas bag that they sling over one shoulder, and if they wear a backpack they should put both straps on to distribute the load evenly.
Schools don’t have nurses or doctors with the knowledge or ability to tackle cases of scoliosis in children early on, education officials said.
“Health care services are provided to students through medical teams led by a general practitioner, who only visit schools once or twice a year,” said Shenouf Redda, principal of a primary school in Bouamama, in Algiers. “The medical examination of students focus only on infectious diseases, which means that discovering scoliosis in schools is impossible.”
Some educators have tried to reduce the weight of backpacks, which they say shouldn’t weigh more than 10 to 15 percent of a child’s total body weight. The educational authorities in central Algiers, for example, stipulated that cupboards and drawers in some of the schools be allocated for children to store books overnight.
But there is disagreement over this. “Books cannot be left at school,” since students need them to complete their homework, said Masoud Amrawy, a spokesperson at the National Union of Educational Employees.
Khaled Ahmed, the head of the Parents’ Association, has proposed another solution: Making books slimmer by only including relevant content. That could reduce the weight of each student’s backpack to about 10 kilograms, making them equal to about 34 percent of a student’s body weight, he said.
“A fourth grader has 12 books and 11 copybooks, which is quite a number,” Ahmed said. “Dividing books into sections for each school term could solve the problem.”
Ahmed’s suggestion would require textbooks to be reprinted, costing the government extra money, but Ahmed said finances should not be a factor: “Our children’s health is priceless,” he said. “So, this reason is unacceptable. Furthermore, some of these books are already reprinted every year to correct mistakes.”
Whatever the solution, parents and educators say something needs to be done as the education ministry has failed to reduce the weight of backpacks especially for students in early grades.
Some have called for a complete review of the curricula and for advancement in methods of teaching to combat the problem.
“The educational system requires thorough review and assessment of all aspects of the educational process,” said Shebittah, the professor of pedagogical sociology. “The issue cannot be confined to school bags, which will continue to be a problem as long as the use of technology in schools is still a far-fetched dream.”