Dubai/Abu Dhabi/Sharjah: Public schools opened for the new academic year yesterday with student turnout as low as 30 per cent in most of the schools.

Principals and teachers said one of the lowest ever-attendance percentages experienced on the first day of school was partly because opening day had fallen on a Wednesday coupled with swine flu fears among parents.

Public and private schools following the Ministry of Education (MoE) curriculum started the new 2009/2010 academic year yesterday after an extended summer break. Around 597,000 students were expected to attend classes.

Mohammad Al Mas, the principal of Al Ma'arif Public School in Dubai, said they only had a student turnout of around 10 per cent yesterday. This is the school's lowest recorded turnout in years. "This is probably the case because the first day happens to be [at] the end of the week and falls between two vacations. I don't think there is any other reason why students would not show up," he said.

However, Ahmad Al Mulla, headmaster of Omar Bin Al Khattab Model School, speculates that among the reasons for the low turnout was parents' fear of the spread of the H1N1 virus.

"We will send instant messages to parents' mobile phones about the importance [of having] their children during the first days of the academic year. We absolutely assure parents of our precautionary measures against H1N1," he said.

Some parents said they did not send their children to school as the weekend was just two days away.

"My two children decided not to go to school as there are only two days [left before] the weekend. I also felt that it would be good if they start the school on Sunday as most of the children would be absent.

"I think authorities should have postponed the [reopening of schools] till Sunday," said Ebrahim Khalid, one parent.

Some students who attended school said their parents had warned them against greeting or kissing their classmates to avoid contracting the H1N1 virus.

"The first piece of advice my parents gave me was not to kiss my friends and to keep a distance from my classmates. They are worried about me as students who travelled to other countries might have contracted the virus," said Islam Samir Ali, a student of Al Safa Secondary School for Boys.

70 per cent absent

In Abu Dhabi and Sharjah, the percentage of absent students on opening day was as high as 70 per cent in most schools as parents showed they were still worried about sending their children back to schools due to the H1N1 scare.

An administrator from Al Thoraya government school said only 30 per cent attended school on the first day.

"Being an administrator and a mother to four children whose ages range from four to ten, I understand the fear parents have regarding the spread of H1N1.

"I myself didn't send my kids to school. There are also lots of parents and students who are still on their annual leave, which may be another reason for the poor attendance level," he said.

The vice-president of Aisha Bin Abi Bakr said only 400 out of 730 girls attended school yesterday. A private school called Emirates Nation School delayed their opening day to Sunday.

"The MoE gave schools the choice to either open today or by Sunday and we decided to open on Sunday, mostly due to our scare regarding H1N1. We're trying to take extra pre-cautionary measures before we decide to accommodate our students," a source from the school said.

Education: Smooth operation

Humaid Mohammad Obaid Al Qutami, Minister of Education, called upon all the ministry's key officials and directors of district education to intensify contacts in the educational sectors and schools to make sure the educational process flows smoothly.

The minister toured schools in Al Maliha, Al Dhaid and Falaj Al Mualla and other locations on Tuesday, where he inspected premises and congratulated teaching and administrative staff and students about the commencement of the academic year.

All schools in Abu Dhabi are prepared and ready to receive students and are fully prepared to face any H1N1 infection cases, said Dr Mugheer Khamis Al Khaili, director general of the Abu Dhabi Educational Council.