Already struggling, Lebanon's school system faces an existential crisis

Already struggling, Lebanon's school system faces an existential crisis

Rola Mahmasani, an English teacher at the now-closed Dream School in Naameh, stands at the front of an empty classroom. (OLJ/João Sousa)

BEIRUT — The walls of the school building in Naameh were painted with murals of dancing animals, trains and the ABCs, but inside the classrooms, the desks were gone. In one room, leftover textbooks were piled on the floor; in another, photographs of beaming children in caps and gowns were still tacked to the wall. Otherwise, the building had been emptied of all its contents, including its students and teachers.

Dream School, a small private school that, for the past 20 years, had catered to families of modest means in the area of Naameh south of Beirut, had shut its doors for good.

If the landscape in Lebanon’s education sector does not change, insiders and observers said, many more are likely to follow.

The start of the new school year sees the already struggling education system in Lebanon facing what many describe as an existential threat, between the economic crisis that has rendered many families unable to pay school fees, the COVID-19 crisis that left students struggling to learn online without reliable electricity or internet, and the aftermath of the Beirut port explosion.

“This is an unprecedented crisis for children,” Yukie Mokuo, the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) representative in Lebanon, told L’Orient Today. “If you are talking about COVID and children’s learning environment and outcomes, that is generally everywhere in the world, but in the case of Lebanon, it is compounded by the socio-economic crisis and also the explosion damage.”

In the case of Dream School, it was first threatened by last October’s wildfires, which reached the gates of the school; then by the closures due to protests off and on beginning in mid-October and then to the coronavirus from the end of February; and finally, fatally, by the economic crisis that left families unable to pay even modest school fees.

“Every event in the country, whether it was political or financial or natural, was affecting us,” said Arslan Berjawi, the school’s principal, which he founded and ran along with his wife.

Arslan Berjawi stands in an empty hallway of his school, now closed after 20 years.Arslan Berjawi stands in an empty hallway of his school, now closed after 20 years. (OLJ/João Sousa)

Samia Itani, the mother of two former students at the school, said her children were upset at having to change schools and that, with the local public school full, she’d had a difficult time finding another affordable private school in the area.

“It’s not our fault or the fault of the school,” she said of the Dream School closure. “We parents are not able [to pay the fees] and the ministry didn’t help us, nor was there support from any other organization.”

A convergence of crises

Lebanon’s education sector had already been struggling before the most recent set of crises.

Even before the explosion, many public schools were in need of major repairs and there were shortages of learning materials and qualified teachers. International assessments found that Lebanese students lagged behind those in other countries in the region and in a similar income bracket in terms of learning. The Syrian refugee crisis brought an injection of new international funding to the school system but also added to the strain on it.

“Learning was already struggling, education was already struggling in Lebanon before all of these [current] issues, and now with people getting poorer and schools having more limited resources, I think it’s just going to increase the struggle for not only students and families, but all stakeholders within the system,” said Hana El-Ghali, the director of the Education and Youth Policy research program at the American University of Beirut’s Issam Fares Institute.

Officials with the Education Ministry, including caretaker Minister Tarek Majzoub and Director-General Fadi Yarek did not respond to requests for comment on the multiple challenges facing the school sector or the ministry’s plans to address them.

In June, Majzoub announced that the cabinet had approved a proposal to give LL500 billion in additional support to public and private schools, but as yet, Parliament has not signed off on it.

Meanwhile, Boutros Azar, the head of the Secretariat-General of Catholic Schools in Lebanon and coordinator of the Association of Private Educational Institutions in Lebanon, told L’Orient Today that the state has not kept up with its obligations to so-called free private schools, in which families pay a nominal tuition fee and the remainder is supposed to be subsidized by the government.

Azar said Lebanon is facing “a great catastrophe in education.”

“Not after two years — after one year, if there is no aid, first off, the teachers [and employees] will go to unemployment,” he said. “Many schools are going to close and the only ones that will remain are the ones where the students’ families are rich.”

Online learning issues

While the ministry had planned to implement a mix of in-person and online learning this year, the steadily rising number of COVID-19 cases has put that in doubt. On Oct. 12, the school year officially started, with students in the 9th, 11th and 12th grades permitted to attend classes in person part-time, while other grades were to begin with fully online learning. However, even for those in the grades permitted to attend in person, the opening was complicated by lockdowns in a number of municipalities with high numbers of coronavirus cases.

Meanwhile, the country still lacks a comprehensive plan for online learning. Many families ran into issues last year due to lack of internet access or access to devices.

“Every house has at least two or three children and the economic situation is bad — how are they supposed to get an internet subscription and get an iPad for every child or a mobile phone [to be able to attend online classes]?” Berjawi said.

Azar said one of the schools’ demands is for the state to ensure all students have access to electricity and the internet.

“They promised regarding the internet that they will try to provide it to every student free of charge, but until now we haven’t seen this,” he said.

Coronavirus has forced schools to partially or fully ditch traditional, in-person classes for online learning. (OLJ/João Sousa)

The difficulties of online learning extend from preschool to higher education.

Zeina Abdallah of Tripoli’s Jabal Mohsen neighborhood was the first in her family to go to university, enrolling last year to study Arabic literature. But the frustrations of online learning, combined with the increased demands of university classes, led her to leave the program midway through.

“For us who were coming out of [secondary school] to the university, it was a new atmosphere, so we don’t know the material very well,” Abdallah said. She does not have a laptop and found reading and writing on her phone difficult.

Not being able to speak to the teachers face to face to ask questions made matters worse. “They would take a picture of something and tell us to study it and if there is a question, tell us,” she said. “They would explain things in voice notes but they would be very long and we would get tired of listening.”

Abdallah is trying again this year, this time changing her major to early childhood education, but it remains unclear whether this year she will be able to learn in person.

Explosion damage

The Aug. 4 Beirut port explosion damaged some 90 public and 109 private primary and secondary schools, as well as 27 universities and 22 technical and vocational schools, said Maysoun Chehab, the national education officer for UNESCO, which has been asked by the Education Ministry to coordinate rehabilitation efforts.

While funding has been secured for the needed repairs to public schools, Chehab said, “It has been very difficult to fundraise for the private sector ... and the private sector holds the majority of our students.”

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The pressures on Lebanon’s school system, explained

Even in the public schools, not all repairs were completed by the time the school term launched, leading to fears that children who had to switch to new schools, farther from their homes, will now be at increased risk of dropping out due to transportation costs and other issues.

Last week, the union representing public secondary school teachers held a press conference in front of Riad al-Solh Public High School in Beirut’s Basta al-Fawqa neighborhood, one of those damaged in the explosion.

“So far, the necessary restoration and repairs have not taken place,” teachers’ association head Nazih Jabbawi said. “We say this more than two and a half months after the explosion. And here we are on the second day of the start of the school year, and the administrative and financial red tape is still preventing repair.”

Shift from private to public

But perhaps the most disruptive factor is the economic situation, which has led to an apparent shift of students from private schools to public ones, which are not prepared to accommodate the influx.

The public school sector has historically suffered from anemic registration, with only about 30 percent of students in the country attending public schools.

While the ministry has not yet released official registration figures for the year, Azar said at least 35,000 students had reportedly transferred from private to public schools so far.

The influx of students in some areas has reportedly led some public schools to turn away potential pupils for lack of space.

Meanwhile, student attrition and unpaid fees have led some private schools to close their doors, further increasing the pressure on the public system. Last year, Catholic schools received on average only 40 percent of the fees owed, and eight have closed their doors this year, Azar said.

Even schools serving relatively well-to-do families have been affected. Rosie Ann Muhanna, the director of development and alumni relations at the elite American Community School in Beirut, told L’Orient Today, “ACS, like many schools in Lebanon, is facing an existential crisis with the rapid devaluation of the Lebanese lira.”

She noted that, in addition to having a high proportion of foreign faculty, the school — which traditionally served to prepare students to enter American universities — is registered as a nonprofit in the United States and has more than $4 million in annual payments that must be made outside of Lebanon in dollars.

“While ACS has made deliberate decisions to decrease its operational expenses as well as staffing reductions, the future of this 115-year-old institution remains tied to the economic health of the country and the families that we serve,” Muhanna said.

In the case of Dream School, while the school’s fees of about LL1.5 million per year were low compared to those of other private schools in Lebanon, even that became prohibitive for their students’ families as many parents lost their jobs or saw their paychecks reduced or delayed.

“The year before last, we had more than 520 students, last year about 470 because the crisis began in the previous year,” Berjawi said. “People no longer had a lot of income or money, so they began not being able to make the payments and started taking their children out and going to the public schools.”

Berjawi stands in a former classroom, now devoid of students and desks. (OLJ/João Sousa)

With registration numbers for this year even lower, and with obligations looming — including rent, municipal taxes and payments into the social security and workers’ compensation funds, as well as salaries — the school’s owners decided to close up shop.

“You’re not looking to profit, but you have encumbrances on you … and you need the income to at least be enough to break even,” Berjawi said. “We are just me and my wife. There is not anyone else behind us, there’s not a charitable organization or a political party or the state or community or anything.

“All of these circumstances together led us to take this decision, which was very difficult for us and for the families who were with us continuously for 20 years.”

BEIRUT — The walls of the school building in Naameh were painted with murals of dancing animals, trains and the ABCs, but inside the classrooms, the desks were gone. In one room, leftover textbooks were piled on the floor; in another, photographs of beaming children in caps and gowns were still tacked to the wall. Otherwise, the building had been emptied of all its contents, including its...