Following a barrage of harsh criticism, Mohsen Haji-Mirzaei, the Iran's Minister of Education, said on Monday, September 7, that "Students are not obliged to attend schools."
A week earlier, Haji-Mirzaei insisted that Iranian students begin to come back to reopened schools outside the red-zoned areas.
In a change of opinion, Haji-Mirzaei told citizens, "From the beginning, we said that students' presence at schools is not mandatory. We said that our priority is face-to-face education, which is more appropriate for several reasons. That is why we are preparing all schools for in-person education. Therefore, the priority has been given to in-person education, and schools will be running, regardless of the number of students attending them."
The school year in Iran began last Saturday after a near six-month shutdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic, with parents voicing concerns despite authorities pledging to enforce health protocols.
About 15 million Iranian students returned to class, mostly remotely, as the clergy-dominated country continues to struggle with coronavirus-related deadly diseases. Iran's COVID-19 outbreak, the most fatal in the Middle East, has claimed over 22,000 lives, with more than 384,000 citizens infected since the first cases were confirmed in February.
Earlier, the government-appointed head of Iran's Medical Council (IMC), Mohammad Reza Zafarqandi, had blasted the country's Ministry of Education for deciding to reopen all schools amidst the coronavirus outbreak.
Reprimanding the Ministry for its "sudden U-turn" over reopening schools across Iran, Zafarqandi said in a letter to Haji-Mirzaei that the new decision had raised serious concerns.
"The 'surprising decision' to reopen schools would no doubt lead to an increased burden on the country's medical workers," the state-run Iran Students News Agency, ISNA, quoted Zafarqandi as saying in his letter.
"When an epidemic hit, schools are the first places that should be closed and the last to be reopened," Zafarqandi said.
Furthermore, Zafarqandi said that he hoped the Ministry's "sudden decision" had not been "politically motivated" or forced by issues other than education.
On Monday, before announcing that students were not required to attend school, the director of Tehran's Sina Hospital, Mohammad Talebpour, stressed that students' presence would cause the deadly virus to spread among families.
Talebpour also claimed that "children are good carriers" who transmit the virus without being infected.
According to Talebpour, children and adults have the same risk of contracting the coronavirus, but children may not respect hygiene requirements as seriously and may be tired of wearing masks.
The reopening of schools in Iran last Saturday has caused great concern among families and teachers, and many have refused to send their children to school.
"No one can force students to attend schools, and if they want to be educated in absentia, there is no problem, and we will provide them with distance education," Haji-Mirzaei said on Monday.
Haji-Mirzaei has talked about providing facilities at a time when numerous reports in recent weeks have said that thousands of students do not have access to the tools needed for distanced learning.