Syria’s higher education ministry on Saturday suspended classes and lectures at public and private universities until mid-April, citing rising numbers of coronavirus cases. But students say the real reason behind the suspension is an acute fuel shortage that has paralyzed the war-torn country, making it difficult and expensive for professors and students to reach campuses.
“Going to universities and schools has become almost impossible for the majority,” said Rahaf, a student at Tishreen University in Latakia. “The fuel shortage has affected all aspects of our lives. Public transportation is rare and becomes more expensive, and many prefer to stay at home.”
With the shortage of subsidized fuels such as gasoline and diesel fuel, affordable public transportation has become almost non-existent, pushing students to share taxi rides that cost half their weekly allowance for one round trip, according to many students Al-Fanar Media interviewed.
The fuel crisis is not new in a country which has suffered from savage conflict since 2011 and international economic sanctions. (See a related article, “In Syria, the Complicated Web that Sanctions Weave.”)
But it reached a peak late March after a ship blocked the Suez Canal for nearly a week, preventing tankers from reaching Syrian ports, the oil ministry said.
“Students commuting on the back of pick-up trucks has become a normal scene of life in Damascus,” said Ammar Alali, 21, a civil engineering student in Damascus. The two-week suspension of classes gave students a break in this crisis, he added.
An Abrupt Decision to Suspend Classes
Sahar Al-Fahoum, deputy minister for scientific research affairs at Syria’s higher education ministry, said the suspension decision came suddenly but was kind of expected.
“The gas crisis was exacerbating the situation, along with inflation. The suffering was growing, in addition to a third wave of Covid-19 infections,” she added. “These were the immediate and remote causes of the suspension.” (See a related article, “‘Life Must Go On’: Syria’s Universities and Schools Prepare to Reopen.”)
“The gas crisis was exacerbating the situation, along with inflation. The suffering was growing, in addition to a third wave of Covid-19 infections. These were the immediate and remote causes of the suspension.”Sahar Al-Fahoum
Deputy minister for scientific research affairs at Syria’s higher education ministry
Officially, Syria has only around 20,000 cases of Covid-19 since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic last year, but with a very low testing capacity, doctors in the country’s biggest hospitals say the real number of cases is much higher and that a third wave of infection might be underway.
“The situation is fluctuating,” said Tarek Alabed, a doctor at Ibn Al-Nafees Hospital in Damascus. “A few days ago, the numbers were going down. Today, my colleagues said last night was very tough and the number of cases was immense.”
It’s too early to speak about how the closure of schools and universities might affect the number of cases, Alabed said, especially as other large public gatherings are continuing.
“A huge shopping festival will open,” he said. “Weddings and funerals are happening without any restrictions. Unfortunately, we are on a date with a fourth peak that will reach other cities.”
Unclear When Classes Will Resume
The shutdown of schools and universities officially lasts through April 17, but it is uncertain whether classes will definitely resume then, due to the limited coronavirus testing capacity in Syria and the absence of data on the infection’s spread.
The education ministry said it will extend the second semester by two weeks into the summer to compensate for the April suspension and that it will ensure that students don’t suffer educational loss. Online education seems also useless, with power cuts can last up to 20 hours.
Students’ reactions to the closure were mixed.
“There are two kinds of students, the studious ones who opposed the suspension and the normal ones who welcomed it. They are getting ready for a trip now,” said Lylas Al Qaysi, 18, a medical engineering student in Damascus. She said she expects the suspension to go beyond mid-April.
In March 2020, Syria’s universities and schools closed for two and half months as a part of a general lockdown to contain the spread of the pandemic. Universities resorted to an intensive lectures schedule to compensate for the lost time. (See a related article, “Arab Universities Begin Reopening After Covid-19 Closures.”)
The Fuel Shortage Problem
But students say a closure of education facilities while restaurants, shops and entertainment venues remain open will not bring coronavirus numbers down. And a resumption of lectures will happen only once the public transportation system resumes with flowing fuel, they say.
“I am with the suspension. Not because of the coronavirus, but because many students who can’t reach the university due to the gas crisis are missing out,” said Rama Aljurdy, 24, a student at the Faculty of Tourism in the city of Homs.
One option that has been considered before is for more people to bicycle to campuses.
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In 2015, Maen Elhemmeh, a Damascus University lecturer who abandoned commuting by car, launched a campaign that promoted bicycling as a way to avoid to traffic jams and the high cost of public transportation. The campaign gained wide publicity and many students started using bicycles to reach their universities. (See a related article, “In Damascus, a New Student Craze: Bicycles.”)
But Elhemmeh, who is now living in Germany, does not believe such an alternative would work widely and effectively in the current crisis.
“This is an individual solution,” he said. “Many students can’t ride bicycles due to health issues and far destinations. There should be a solution by the government that is fully responsible on supporting its people.”