By Mohammed Benmansour
RIYADH (Reuters) - Waleed Saleh grinned behind his face mask in the corridor of Riyadh's Ibn al-Hajeb elementary school, enjoying his first chance to see all of his classmates in more than a year.
"It has been a while," the 13-year-old said as his friends headed to lessons around him, wearing white robes and leather sandals and carrying black backpacks. A sign in the courtyard outside wished them all a "warm welcome back".
Around 6 million students returned to classes in the kingdom this week for the first time since the start of the pandemic after data suggested infections were stabilising and fatalities falling.
But authorities are keeping cautious.
Children older than 12 have to show they have been vaccinated before they can return.
At Ibn al-Hajeb, a security guard checked all the children's temperature after their parents dropped them off at the gate. The pupils then lined up, standing on marked spots in the courtyard before processing in.
"School breaks and activities involving physical proximity have been cancelled," school manager Hassan al-Fefe told Reuters.
Pupils have to keep their distance during the day - the children sit far apart on blue tables. But the return was still something to celebrate, Waleed and his friends said.
"At least now we can understand what our teacher is saying. We could barely follow our lessons remotely," said Fahd al-Fares, 13.
New coronavirus infections in Saudi Arabia have stabilised at a few hundred daily over the last months from a peak of more than 4,000 new cases in June 2020. The average daily number of deaths fell below 10 during August.
On Sunday, the Saudi health ministry reported 208 new infections and six deaths. More than 36 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines have been administered and 78% of the kingdom's 35 million people have at least received one doze, the ministry said.
(Writing by Aziz El Yaakoubi; Editing by Andrew Heavens)