Lebanon goes back to school amid coronavirus: Families can’t afford supplies, laptops

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With 30,000 Lebanese pounds, 17-year-old Elyse headed out with her older sister to buy a geography book for her final year of school.

“How much is it going to cost? 20,000 pounds, 30,000 pounds, 35,000 pounds, max?” she wondered, trying to brace herself for the price hikes on school supplies in Lebanon.

Sharp inflation in the country has meant that goods are now more expensive and the value of the local currency has plummeted, losing around 80 percent of its value. Elyse’s 30,000 pounds would’ve been around $20 at the official exchange rate, but is now just $3.75 at the current market rate. Products imported must be bought with US dollars, making imports even more expensive.

After walking into the bookstore, Elyse stormed out and broke into tears in complete disbelief after paying 60,000 pounds for a book that once approximately cost 7,500 pounds.

The price of essential school supplies in Lebanon have skyrocketed, shocking many families.

Hadi Bark, a single father of two boys, described how he walked into a bookstore and then walked right back out.

“A stylo pen that used to cost between 4,000 to 5,000 pounds is now selling for 50,000 pounds,” said Bark. “That’s just the price of one pen.”

But the issues for education in Lebanon are deeper than the cost of pens and textbooks.

With school shifting online amid the coronavirus pandemic, some families can’t afford laptops, and children are struggling to do their school work on mobile phones. Over 100 educational institutions were damaged in the August 4 Beirut port explosion, and for many families, providing quality education has become too expensive as compounding crises have meant families must prioritize food and other basic goods.

A worker cleans an empty classroom at a school, as Lebanon’s education system is in limbo with multiple challenges, in Sidon Lebanon, May 29, 2020. (Reuters)

Private education in Lebanon – which families have gone to great lengths to provide for their children in the past – is no longer tenable for many families struggling under the weight of an ongoing economic crisis, and many families have switched to the country’s lackluster public education system.

Like most state-run sectors in the country, public education is lagging due to government negligence. Some common issues facing public education include poor infrastructure, underqualified personnel, and high pupil-to-teacher ratio, according to a research blog published by BlomInvest Bank in 2016.

The quality of Lebanon’s public school system suffered with the outbreak of the civil war in 1975, the US Agency for International Development (USAID) found. Now 45 years later, it continues to face significant challenges.

This has prompted families in Lebanon to opt for private education, which adds an unfathomable financial burden that has been the breaking point for some parents.

In February 2019, a Lebanese father set himself on fire at his daughter’s school in the Koura district of north Lebanon over a fee dispute with administration.

George Zreik, struggling to pay his daughter’s school fees, needed a document from the school to transfer her to a new institution. When the school withheld the document as he was unable to pay his dues, Zreik reportedly doused himself with petrol before lighting himself on fire. He would later die from his burns.

Zreik’s death sparked outrage at the time as it symbolized the daunting reality for hundreds of families struggling with terrible socioeconomic circumstances but who were still going the extra mile to secure a decent education for their kids.

While some families had still been able to make ends meet in the past, today they are left with no choice but to make the switch to public education.

The transfer

The Ministry of Education and Higher Education (MEHE) estimates that more than 170,000 students are expected to transfer from private to public schools and about 30,000 students are expected to withdraw from private schools, according to the Beirut Rapid Damage and Needs Assessment (RDNA) published in August 2020. Statistics are not final as enrollment for public schools is still ongoing and is expected to end on October 10, only two days before the designated beginning of the new year.

Compared to last year’s numbers, this year has seen a significant increase in transfers; in January 2020, just over 39,000 students switched from private to public education, which was still an uptick compared to earlier years.

UNESCO Director-General Audrey Azoulay walks at a public school damaged in the massive explosion at Beirut’s port area, in Beirut, Lebanon August 27, 2020. (Reuters)

Meanwhile, the International Rescue Committee (IRC) has warned that with 163 schools damaged by the Beirut blast, at least one in four children are at risk of missing out on their education.

In total, the ministry expects roughly 600,000 students to enroll in public schools this year. This is an estimated increase of 10 to 20 percent compared to former school years, UNICEF Education Specialist Ghinwa Itani told Al Arabiya English.

Families in Lebanon are racing to secure a spot for their children in public schools before they fill up. According to university student Fatima Moustafa, every time her family would speak of moving her brother, they were told to hurry up before schools are full.

However, according to the Ministry of Education’s calculations, public schools can absorb all students transferring this year, even if they don’t get a spot at the school nearest to them, Itani said.

“But parents will have to accept that if it means securing an education for their children,” she continued.

While reasons behind student transfers to public schools vary, the dominating reason is that private education is no longer affordable for many Lebanese families as crises accumulate.

For the 2019-2020 school year, the outbreak of nationwide protests October 17 and continued protests, roadblocks and occasional violence forced schools to close multiple times. As the political turmoil cooled and schools reopened, the emergence of coronavirus in Lebanon on February 21 led to a complete shutdown of educational institutions in March. This prompted many families to make the switch this year as they were not willing to pay for private education knowing the school year will be mostly online.

Despite their best efforts to ensure private education for their children in the past, Moustafa’s parents transferred their 14-year-old son to a public school during the 2019-2020 academic year after a dispute with the former school over settlement of the tuition fees, and the school refused to compromise on the amount to be paid.

A view of an empty classroom at a school, as Lebanon’s education system is in limbo with multiple challenges, in Beirut, Lebanon, June 8, 2020. (Reuters)

“We honestly were ready to take the length of getting in debt and trying to get him to continue there,” Moustafa told Al Arabiya English, but they “decided to settle for a public school” upon learning that the school year will mostly be online and would only include half the regular curriculum.

Online learning

As COVID-19 still spreads freely, distance learning has been deemed the safest approach to education, but it has put an additional burden on families in Lebanon.

With ongoing power cuts, expensive yet slow internet, and a lack of access to essential remote learning channels like laptops and tablets, students are struggling to keep up.

Maroun Haber is an information technology student at the Edde Technical Institute who is trying to cope with distance learning without a laptop. With two other siblings at home, they’re all trying to catch up on their studies and assignments from their mobile phones which makes the process “a lot more difficult and time consuming,” explained Haber.

Inflation has meant that buying a new laptop is out of the question.

Haber and his siblings are not the only students that are entering the school year underequipped.

Stephanie Mehanna, PhD, university instructor and moderator of LibanTroc, a local platform that connects people and allows for the exchange of goods and services and collects donations, said that the organization has received dozens of messages every day for laptops.

The Ministry of Education’s “back-to-school” plan, led by UNICEF and created in collaboration with the education sector, sought to address this issue.

The sector’s back-to-school plan is composed of notable measures that include halving the curriculum and incorporating material from the lost year, dividing students into small groups to attend school in shifts, and giving the bulk of school material during class hours. Regular assessments will also be made to identify what can be built on and what should be amended.

To tackle the lack of access to essential technology, Itani explained that UNICEF is working on addressing these urgent needs alongside the Ministry of Education by calling for funds and allocating resources to the most vulnerable beneficiaries. They’re also finding ways to make books available digitally to skip the hefty costs of printing, and assessing the need of students for covering enrollment fees, learning supplies, and transportation.

“It’s a very experimental stage,” Itani explained. “Many variables are being taken into account to address all possible scenarios.”

The plan also takes into account the role of teachers and parents in blended learning and works on providing them with varied training sessions to adapt to this new educational method.

“It’s comforting to know that we’re not alone, this is a completely new experience for everyone,” she continued. But regardless of how frightening it may seem now, the plan of action for the new school year “should be given a chance and given credit.”

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