In recent weeks, the Ministry of Education has been trumpeting the proportion of vaccinated school pupils: a reported, underwhelming 35 percent. Concurrently, health officials are warning that Covid-19 cases among both students and their teachers are rising, while fears abound over the new, highly transmissible Omicron variant.
Between September and November all schools across Iran gradually reopened, even though some lack proper ventilation or are not able to facilitate social distancing. The policy was in line with international policy recommendations issued by the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) and the World Health Organization (WHO) to halt the damage done to children’s education by months-long absences from school.
“Schoolchildren worldwide have lost 1.8 trillion hours and counting of in-person learning due to Covid-19 lockdowns,” announced UNICEF. “The right to go to school and learn is central to every child’s development, safety and well-being.”
In their joint statement, UNICEF and the WHO also stated that measures that must be taken to reopen schools safely, such as “ensuring vaccination is accessible to teachers and other school staff, improvements to the school environment to meet safety standards... regular testing of staff and constant sharing of information for parents on safety precautions. Vaccination is one of the best and fastest ways of protection against the virus, including the Delta variant.”
A number of schools in Iran are not able to meet these conditions, but the guidance from the Education Ministry and the National Coronavirus Taskforce remained the same.
Covid Cases Increase among Students
Iranian media has recently reported an increase in Covid cases among students and teachers. Some 48 students in the city of Qom tested positive for coronavirus between November 6 and December 1. “My colleagues have told me about Covid cases among children,” said Dr. Hossein Kermanpour, head of the emergency ward at Tehran’s Sina Hospital on December 7. “The number of teachers infected has also increased with the reopening of schools.”
Health Minister Bahram Einollahi has also expressed concern. “Where there are crowds, coronavirus infects more people,” he said, emphasizing – without explaining how provision would be arranged – that all those who go into schools must either be vaccinated or present a negative PCR test.
Were School Reopenings a Mistake?
According to the latest official figures, 58 percent of Iranians have received both doses of vaccine while health experts believe that to reach collective immunity, at least 80 percent of a given population must be fully vaccinated.
According to the Education Ministry, only 35 percent of Iranian students between ages of 12 and 18 had been vaccinated as of November 16, close to two months after school reopenings.
Dr. Sahar Motallebi, a Sweden-based community and social health expert, told IranWire: “Under-12s are more likely to get infected and become carriers than other age groups, because they’re not capable of following health guidelines such as social distancing and wearing masks. This makes a sixth wave of coronavirus in Iran more likely.
“The worrying thing about coronavirus infection among children is MIS-C [multisystem inflammatory syndrome, a rare but serious complication from Covid-19], which is difficult to cure and can even lead to death.” Around 11 of global Delta variant cases are children, and children’s rate of hospitalization has increased with this variant.
According to preliminary reports, Omicron can spread four times faster than the Delta variant.
Last week, Dr. Hamid Soori of the National Coronavirus Taskforce told IranWire he believed there was a high probability that Omicron had already entered Iran: “It’s very likely that it’s here, even though we have no proof. As of now, at least 2,000 cases of infection by this variant have been detected around the world, including in our neighboring countries.” Field reports by doctors in Tehran, Karaj and Mashhad suggested the same.
“According to reports by doctors about the new variant in Iran,” Dr. Motallebi said, “The symptoms are lasting for less time than the Delta variant. It’s this change in the clinical profile that has persuaded some doctors that these cases might be caused by the Omicron variant.”
Official Coronavirus Statistics
According to the Health Ministry’s weekly statistics, a total of 536 patients are known to have lost their lives to Covid-19 in the week ending December 9. With 90 deaths, December 8 had the highest officially-recorded number of fatalities for the week.
At the week’s end, 3,169 Covid-19 patients in Iran were being treated in ICUs. According to the Health Ministry, at the time of writing the total number of vaccine doses injected had reached 109,387,244.
There are currently two Iranian cities on red alert for coronavirus transmission. Another 9 are rated orange and 153 are yellow. Another 284 cities in Iran are on “blue” alert.