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Taliban break promise on higher education for Afghan girls


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KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — Afghanistan’s Taliban rulers unexpectedly decided against reopening schools Wednesday to girls above the sixth grade, reneging on a promise and opting to appease their hard-line base at the expense of further alienating the international community.

The surprising decision, confirmed by a Taliban official, is bound to disrupt efforts by the Taliban to win recognition from potential international donors at a time when the country is mired in a worsening humanitarian crisis. The international community has urged Taliban leaders to reopen schools and give women their right to public space.

The reversal was so sudden that the Education Ministry was caught off guard on Wednesday, the start of the school year, as were schools in parts of the Afghan capital of Kabul and elsewhere in the country. Some girls in higher grades returned to schools, only to be told to go home.

Aid organizations said the move exacerbated the uncertainty surrounding Afghanistan’s future as the Taliban leadership seems to struggle to get on the same page as it shifts from fighting to governing.

It also came as the leadership was convening in Kandahar amid reports of a possible Cabinet shuffle.

U.S. Special Representative Thomas West tweeted his “shock and deep disappointment” about the decision, calling it “a betrayal of public commitments to the Afghan people and the international community.”

He said the Taliban had made it clear that all Afghans have a right to education, adding, “For the sake of the country’s future and its relations with the international community, I would urge the Taliban to live up to their commitments to their people.”

The Norwegian Relief Committee, which spends about $20 million annually to support primary education in Afghanistan, was still waiting for official word from the Taliban about canceling the classes for girls above the sixth grade.

Berenice Van Dan Driessche, advocacy manager for the committee, said their representatives had not gotten official word of the change as of Wednesday night, and that girls in the 11 provinces where they work had gone to school but were sent home.

The committee’s staff in the provinces “reported a lot of disappointment and also a lot of uncertainty” about the future, she said. It said that in some areas, teachers said they would continue to hold classes for the girls until the Taliban issued an official order.

Waheedullah Hashmi, external relations and donor representative with the Taliban-led administration, told The Associated Press the decision was made late Tuesday night.

“We don’t say they will be closed forever,” Hashmi added.

U.N. special representative Deborah Lyons will try to meet Thursday with the Taliban to ask them to reverse their decision, U.N. spokesperson Stephane Dujarric said.

Earlier in the week, a statement by the Education Ministry had urged “all students” to return when classes resumed Wednesday.

On Tuesday, ministry spokesman Mawlvi Aziz Ahmad Rayan had told AP that all girls would be allowed back to school, although the Taliban administration would not insist on it in those areas where parents were opposed or where schools could not be segregated.

He was reluctant to give details but promised if schools can meet these conditions, “there would no issue for them” to begin classes for girls in the higher grades.

“In principle, there is no issue from the ministry side, but as I said, it is a sensitive and cultural issue,” he added.

The decision to postpone the return of girls at the higher grade levels appeared to be a concession to the rural and deeply tribal backbone of the hard-line Taliban movement that in many parts of the countryside are reluctant to send their daughters to school.

The decision also came as the movement’s leadership has been summoned to southern Kandahar by the reclusive Taliban leader, Haibatullah Akhunzada, amid reports of a Cabinet shakeup, according to an Afghan leader who is also a member of the leadership council. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media.

The official said it was possible that some senior interim Cabinet positions could be changed.

Since the Taliban swept to power in August 2021, there have been persistent reports of differences among the senior leadership. According to these reports, more hard-line members are at odds with pragmatists, who want to see a greater engagement with the world. While staying true to their Islamic beliefs, they want to be less harsh than when they last ruled Afghanistan, banning women from work and girls from schools, the reports say.

Television is permitted in Afghanistan today, unlike in the past, and women are not required to wear the all-encompassing burqa. but must wear the traditional hijab, covering their heads. Women have also returned to work in the Health and Education ministries and at Kabul International Airport at passport control and customs.

The Taliban were ousted in 2001 by a U.S.-led coalition for harboring al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden and returned to power after America’s chaotic departure last year.

Girls have been banned from school beyond the sixth grade in most of the country since the Taliban’s return. Universities opened earlier this year in much of the country, but since taking power the Taliban edicts have been erratic. While a handful of provinces continued to provide education to all, most provinces closed educational institutions for girls and women.

In the capital of Kabul private schools and universities have operated uninterrupted.

The religiously driven Taliban administration fears going forward with enrolling girls beyond the sixth grade could alienate their rural base, Hashmi said.

“The leadership hasn’t decided when or how they will allow girls to return to school,” he said. While he accepted that urban centers are mostly supportive of education for girls, much of rural Afghanistan is opposed, particularly in Pashtun tribal regions.

In some rural areas, a brother will disown a city-dwelling brother who allows a daughter to go to school, said Hashmi, adding that the Taliban leadership is trying to decide how to open education for girls beyond the sixth grade nationwide.

Most Taliban are ethnic Pashtuns. In their sweep through the country last year, other ethnic groups such as Uzbeks and Tajiks in northern Afghanistan either joined the fight with them or simply did not oppose them.

“We did everything the Taliban asked in terms of Islamic dress, and they promised that girls could go to school and now they have broken their promise,” said Mariam Naheebi, a journalist who spoke to the AP in Kabul.

“They have not been honest with us,” added Naheebi, who has protested for women’s rights.

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Alberta premier defends new rules on in-person learning, no mask mandates in schools

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By Dean Bennett and Colette Derworiz

Alberta Premier Danielle Smith is defending new rules ordering schools to provide in-person learning during the current wave of viral illnesses, saying a clear, measured response is crucial for students and parents.

“We need a normal school environment for our children, and we need to make sure that the classrooms stay open to be able to support our parents,” Smith said at a news conference in Medicine Hat on Friday.

“That’s why we made the decision that we did — to give that clear direction.”

Her comments came a day after she announced regulatory changes saying school boards must provide in-person learning. Schools also can’t require students to wear masks in school or be forced to take classes online.

The changes take effect immediately.

“Anyone is welcome to wear a mask if they feel that that is the right choice for them, but we should not be forcing parents to mask their kids, and we shouldn’t be denying education to kids who turn up without a mask,” Smith said.

She has said mask rules and toggling from online to in-person learning adversely affected the mental health, development and education of students during the COVID-19 pandemic and strained parents scrambling to make child-care arrangements when schools shut down.

That’s over, Smith said.

“We’re just not going to normalize these kind of extreme measures every single respiratory virus season,” she said.

School boards have been asking for more direction as a slew of seasonal respiratory and gastrointestinal illnesses, along with some COVID-19 cases, have led to high classroom absentee rates and have jammed children’s hospitals.

In Edmonton, Trisha Estabrooks, board chair for Edmonton Public Schools, said the decision provided the clarity that the board was seeking.

“All Albertans now understand that it’s not within the jurisdiction, and nor should it ever have been within the jurisdiction of individual school boards, to make decisions that belong to health officials,” said Estabrooks.

She said the province has made it clear that any future public health order would supersede the new rules.

The in-person learning change applies to grades 1-12 in all school settings, including public, separate, francophone, public charter and independent schools.

The masking change applies to those same grades and schools, but also to early childhood services.

The Opposition NDP criticized the new rules, saying it’s unrealistic to force schools to be all things to all students while also handling a wave of viral illnesses and not providing additional supports to do it.

Jason Schilling, head of the Alberta Teachers’ Association, said the government needs to work with school boards to figure out how to make this work.

“You have schools that are struggling to staff the building, (they) can’t get substitute teachers, teachers are sick, they’re covering each other’s classes, principals are covering the classes,” Schilling said in an interview.

“And then to say if you go online, you are to still offer the same programming in person — we just don’t have the people to do that.”

Wing Li, communications director for public education advocacy organization, Support our Students, said it will be difficult for schools to offer hybrid learning without any additional resources.

“There are no teachers,” Li said in an interview. “Pivoting online was mostly due to staffing shortages, which is worse now three years in.”

Li said online learning is challenging for students but, when temporary and supported, can keep schools and communities safe from spreading illness.

“This is a quite aggressive use of the Education Act to enshrine an ideology,” she said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 25, 2022

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Alberta education minister says she will listen to top doctor about masks in schools

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By Colette Derworiz and Dean Bennett

Alberta’s education minister says she will take advice from the province’s new chief medical health officer on whether to allow school boards to bring in mask mandates in schools with respiratory illness outbreaks.

The Edmonton public school board has asked Alberta Health and Alberta Education whether it can require masks as schools deal with a wave of viral illnesses that is sending thousands of students home sick and straining hospitals.

Education Minister Adriana LaGrange was asked about the request multiple times during a news conference about additional mental health supports for students.

“There is not a one-size-fits-all for this situation,” LaGrange said Wednesday.

“We are going to continue to monitor the situation and, of course, we will take guidance from the new chief medical officer of health. Beyond that, we will continue to ensure our schools and our staff members are protected.”

LaGrange said students and staff are welcome to wear masks but “the premier was very clear recently that we do not anticipate having a mask mandate in place.”

Dr. Mark Joffe, who was appointed chief medical officer of health earlier this week, said in a statement later Wednesday that Alberta is seeing an early rise in seasonal infections such as flu, respiratory syncytial virus and COVID-19.

“The province continues to transition back to long-standing practices to manage respiratory infections in general,” he said. “That includes local public health officials notifying schools of outbreaks and giving them advice and support as needed.”

Joffe said Albertans can take simple, daily actions to help prevent the spread by staying up to date on vaccinations, wearing a well-fitting, high-quality mask and avoiding close contact with people who are sick.

“Albertans should be supported regardless of their choice to mask or not,” he said.

Premier Danielle Smith has been critical of mask rules in schools, saying they adversely affected the mental health, development and education of students during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Edmonton school board chair Trisha Estabrooks said Tuesday there are also mental health concerns with the current situation.

“Missing school and being worried about getting sick also have an impact on our children’s mental health,” said Estabrooks.

“A blanket statement of no more mask mandates ever in schools, I believe, is short-sighted. We can’t predict where the next stage of the pandemic will go.”

In Edmonton, Opposition NDP Leader Rachel Notley said parents and school boards are seeking leadership and guidance from Smith’s United Conservative government but are getting chaos.

“What we’ve got here is nothing but confusion and distraction and an abdication of responsibility by our provincial government,” said Notley.

She said Joffe is doing his job on top of his existing responsibilities as a senior leader with Alberta Health Services.

“(Joffe’s) not actually even being paid to do the job and he’s still doing his other complete job, so that sounds to me like we’ve got a government that doesn’t really value that role.”

Notley said while Joffe is officially tasked with setting public health policy, Smith is assembling a parallel team of medical professionals to advise her on public health.

Smith recently said she wants to hear from Dr. Paul Alexander, a controversial COVID-19 critic who has argued for herd immunity and has called COVID-19 vaccines a “bioweapon.”

“What the UCP, therefore, has created is a mess and a vacuum (of authority),” said Notley. “Danielle Smith seems most interested in talking to conspiracy theorists.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 16, 2022.

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