‘40 percent’ of Madaya students out of school following meningitis scare

 Elementary students gathering outside of a Madaya school on Monday. Photo courtesy of Madaya.

Classes in the regime-blockaded Outer Damascus town of Madaya started this week, but 40 percent of students are not attending school amidst fears that a meningitis outbreak will spread after a recent aid delivery did not include vaccines.

Since schools opened their doors on Sunday, “about 60 percent of students attended classes,” said Hussam Madaya, a middle school French teacher who is in contact with the city’s four other schools and 50 teachers. Syria Direct could not independently confirm his estimate.

The low enrollment among Madaya’s 4,500 students is due to a meningitis scare in the blockaded rebel town, which prompted the local council to postpone the start of the school year on September 19.

The local council, the town’s civilian governing body, delayed classes after two new suspected cases of meningitis appeared just over a week ago, despite the evacuation of meningitis patients from the besieged town, located 50 km from Damascus, on September 8, Syria Direct reported.

Meningitis causes inflammation of the brain and spinal cord membranes. Left untreated, it can cause brain damage, epilepsy, deafness or death, according to a fact sheet published by the World Health Organization.

Madaya parents who spoke to Syria Direct on Tuesday, are afraid to send their children to school because they fear that they will contract meningitis since there are no vaccines or specialized medical personnel in the city to treat them.  

“Their lives are more important than education,” said Abu Mohammed, a father of three. “I’m afraid that they’ll get sick by mixing with students, and I’ll lose them.”

Residents hoped that vaccines for school children would be included in Sunday’s aid delivery, which was sponsored by the UN, Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC) and International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). It was the first such delivery to the town, blockaded by regime forces and Hezbollah last July, in five months, Syria Direct reported.

 School children in Madaya last April. Photo courtesy of Madaya.

“But the opposite happened,” said Firas al-Hussein, a council spokesman, “despite the council’s repeated appeals for vaccines.”

Some families, tired of waiting, sent their unvaccinated children to school this week.

“We got tired of waiting for vaccines,” said Um Wael, who sent her two sons to school on Sunday.

Broken windowpanes

The threat of illness is not the only challenge facing Madaya’s school system. Teachers and students lack books, updated curricula and heaters for the classroom, items the local council says it requested from members of Sunday’s SARC, ICRC and UN delegation.

Elementary and middle school students are using books from last year, said Hussam, a teacher. 

For his high school students, Hussam downloads curricula from online and writes lessons on notebooks for students.

“The situation is bad,” said Hasan al-Malah, the director of the council’s Education Office.  “We don’t get enough money to pay teachers’ salaries.”

Classrooms also need heaters since all of the windowpanes are broken, said Hussam.

“Families have accepted the reality,” said Hussam. “They can’t keep their children out of school for the entire year.”

Noura Hourani

Noura Hourani studied English Literature at Tishreen University and previously worked as a private English tutor. She left Syria at the beginning of the conflict.

Jessica Page, Reporter/Translator

Jessica was a 2013-2014 Georgetown University Qatar Scholarship Program fellow in Doha, Qatar. She received her BA in both Arabic and International & Area Studies from Washington University in St. Louis. She has worked and studied in Jordan, Oman, and Qatar.