BEIRUT — “Last year I couldn’t afford to buy a laptop for my son for him to be able to learn online, and this year I can’t afford fuel to take him to his school even if the school is open for physical attendance,” Karim Wazan, a Beiruti father of a 6-year-old boy, told L’Orient Today.
As Wazen and other parents prepare for their children’s potential return to school in September, major questions loom as to how, and whether, learning will be possible.
The rapidly evolving realities of Lebanon’s economic crisis, along with the COVID-19 pandemic, are leaving students, parents and teachers in an impossible position and putting many children at risk of losing out on education for a third consecutive year.
For 13-year-old Tarek, last year’s power outages seriously disrupted online learning during the successive COVID-19 lockdowns. This year, the teenager says, he worries about how he’ll cope now that the cuts are much longer.
“Last year, when the electricity cuts lasted only three to four hours, I was not able to attend the sessions during the electricity cuts. I don’t know how I will be able to pass now if the academic year will be fully online or hybrid and the electricity comes just an hour per day. I’m probably not going to be able to learn anything, ” he told L’Orient Today.
It remains unclear whether Tarek will be attending classes in person or online — or at all.
The only thing that does seem clear is that this coming school year — like the past two academic years, when a mass protest movement against government mismanagement and corruption led to prolonged school closures and then the COVID-19 pandemic otherwise disrupted the education system — will not be a typical one.
“This year is definitely not going to be a normal academic year, and we don’t know what to expect,” Manal Hdaife, a member of the Public Primary Schools Teachers League in Lebanon, told L’Orient Today.
Hdaife said the league has warned the Education Ministry that if a strategic plan covering teachers’ vaccinations, the fuel crisis, electricity cuts and internet outages and salary increases is not implemented, public schools will remain closed, and employees will go on a long-term strike until such a strategy is fully implemented.
“With the resources we currently have, we cannot teach anyone,” Hdaife added.
Hilda Khoury, the Education Ministry’s counseling and guidance director, told L’Orient Today that the ministry is working to provide solutions at all levels, especially for teachers. However, she added, “Given the intensity of the crisis and the current situation in Lebanon, the plan is taking some time, and we are working and arranging intensive meetings in order to come up with a solution to save the education [sector] in Lebanon.”
As of now, Khoury said, the ministry’s plan for the upcoming year is a hybrid system integrating both physical and remote learning, but she noted that the precise mix will depend on the severity of the COVID-19 situation in the country.
Khoury insisted that one way or another, classes will be in session: “It’s a question of how the academic year will take place, and not if there will be an academic year.”
But others have raised doubts as to whether schools will be in a position to open.
According to a recent United Nations report, “The compounding factors of economic collapse, the inability to pay teachers, transportation costs, fuel to keep the lights on, availability of supplies, space, and the pandemic threaten to overwhelm the ministry’s capacity to open schools in the upcoming school year. This will compound pre-crisis issues as children across the country already had lower than average literacy and numeracy rates compared with the rest of the Middle East region.”
The report noted that more than 1.2 million school-age children in Lebanon had their education disrupted in 2020 alone, with many vulnerable families resorting to negative strategies to cope with the fallout from the country’s economic collapse. These have included taking children out of school to work and marrying off adolescent girls to reduce the financial burden on the household.
Kinda, a 13-year-old Lebanese student living in Saida, was among the lucky ones still able to pursue their education last year. But this year she might not be able to, because as her mother, Mona, says, “we can barely feed ourselves, so much has changed in just one year.”
“I had a lot of technical problems with the internet, electricity and apps last year, and I missed most of the lessons,” Kinda told L’Orient Today.
“My older sister helped me in studying almost every subject, and I was able to ask my teachers my questions during the few days when we were able to go to school. This is how I managed to pass,” she added.
Meanwhile, a wave of transfers from private to public schools have taken place among families no longer able to bear tuition costs. The UN report noted that some 100,000–120,000 students are projected to have moved from private to public schools from the 2019–20 to the 2021–22 school years, adding to the burden on the public school system.
The Center for Educational Research and Development noted, “With 70 percent of students educated in fee-paying institutions, a large number of Lebanese families face the decision about whether to continue in their existing schools or to shift to more cost-effective alternatives. A large number of these transfers threatens to have a long-term impact on the shape and scale of national education provision.”
Walid, a father of two boys who works at an advertising agency, was already struggling to pay his kids’ tuition fees, “but we made it through last year, with my wife, a graphic designer, taking on many freelance projects to help,” he said. “But this year if the boys are to attend school physically, this would mean that we need to drop them off and take them back, and [because] we are already struggling with the fuel shortages, this will be a nightmare, and I cannot help but think that I will not be able to afford my boys’ education this year.
“I can’t even take them to a public school, because that will also include fees related to transportation, and I cannot afford that,” he said.
Even if Walid does manage to send his sons to school, they may find that the school has a shortage of teachers.
Speaking with L’Orient Today, Sahar, a public school teacher who usually drives to her work said that her salary is now LL600,000, which is far too little to meet her and her children’s needs. With the current fuel pricing, Sahar would need half her salary just to be able to fill her car with enough gas to be able to reach work and make it back home each week.
For now, Sahar said she still plans to go back to her teaching job in the fall, but she noted that if she can find other work, she will leave.
Meanwhile, the rising number of COVID-19 cases in Lebanon since the detection of the highly contagious Delta variant in the country in July, coupled with the shortages that have already befallen the health sector, poses a large threat to schools’ prospects for a wholesale return to in-person attendance. The number of COVID-19 patients in intensive care units had risen to 187 as of Thursday, compared with 40–50 last month.
While Khoury said the ministry is planning measures to prevent the spread of the virus in schools, including rapid tests and PCR tests, if the surge continues into September and hospitals are overloaded, in-person schooling may not be an option.
An existential crisis
A Save the Children report published earlier this year noted the existential nature of the crisis facing Lebanon’s education sector.
“The social and economic crisis in Lebanon is turning into an education catastrophe, with vulnerable children facing a real risk of never returning to school,” the report said.
A recent World Bank report about Lebanon’s education sector noted that “years of crises, ongoing political and social unrest, and recent events in Lebanon have led to a largely inefficient and inequitable education sector that provides only low levels of learning and skills and a skills mismatch to the job market. This has led to limited human capital development and struggling economic growth.”
A total collapse of Lebanon’s education system now would likely only worsen the impact on the labor market and economy.
The situation is also having drastic negative ramifications on Syrian refugee communities. According to a Norwegian Refugee Council report released in March 2020, 58 percent of Syrian refugee children in Lebanon were out of school, and the number is likely to increase as refugees — 89 percent of whom are living in extreme poverty, according to a 2020 UN assessment — face increasing barriers to both online learning and access to physical classes as a result of transportation costs and bureaucratic issues. In 2020, a UN survey of more than 4,500 households found that only 17 percent of Syrian children aged 6–14 in had been able to take part in remote classes during the COVID-19 closures, largely due to a lack of internet access.
Faced by overlapping crises, the Education Ministry has not yet adopted an official strategy regarding the fuel shortages, COVID-19 concerns and internet access, let alone refugee children’s access to education.
When asked about the fuel crisis, Khoury said, “Every school will need to figure out how to obtain fuel. Every sector is struggling with this, and every household, but we will try our best to be able to provide a solution, but for now nothing is set.”
The lack of a clear plan is a source of anxiety for parents like Danielle Hatem, a financial adviser whose son is set to begin school this year. “The education sector, which has always been a source of pride for all the Lebanese people, is at great risk today,” Hatem told L’Orient Today.
“If we think we are unlucky since our generation had to leave the country to have a decent living, our children will not even have this opportunity if they are not equipped with a good education level,” Hatem said.
With little help likely to come from local authorities, some are hoping for international aid to keep the education sector afloat. An emergency response plan has been developed through UN support that would allocate $33 million for the education sector in Lebanon.
However, whether this amount and other resources provided by international donors will be sufficient remains to be seen.
Bill Van Esveld, a senior children’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch, told L’Orient Today that while the sum being requested is not enough to address all the sector’s problems, it could help mitigate the crisis. In particular, Van Esveld said the plan’s approach is promising because it would channel the funding directly to the families of at-risk children as well as to teachers and schools, rather than going through the Education Ministry.
“The role of the Education Ministry is limited to identifying which schools need help,” Van Esveld said. “Providing direct support to kids, families and teachers, rather than making money available to the Education Ministry and then hoping it gets where it’s needed, is the right step.”