However, "normal" does not seem the best word to describe the new school year scheduled to begin on September 28 for public and private schools, as announced a few days ago by outgoing Minister of Education Tarek Majzoub. Due to the Coronavirus situation, Lebanese students can at best aspire for a hybrid education that combines face-to-face lessons with distance learning. Unfortunately, such method entails many flows, whether regarding the program's application, the difficult adaptation by teachers, and students' comprehension problems. All this is added to technical issues related to the internet connection, electricity shortage, and the high cost of electronic equipment. The situation would seem even more gloomy when we take into account that over 70 public schools and 50 private schools in Beirut were partially or entirely destroyed by the explosion, according to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO ).
Furthermore, teachers will have to deal with children who may be traumatized by the August 4 explosion or worried because of the difficulties their parents are facing. These are all major obstacles that come on top of the financial challenges encountered in private school education this year, such as tuition fees and the high cost of textbooks and supplies, as banks continue to withhold depositors' money while the dollar is trading at almost 8,000 Lebanese pounds on the black market.
Two to three months of repairs
"We have no clear data," Amal Barakat, the deputy headmistress of Collège Saint-Grégoire, told L'Orient Le Jour. There is no visibility, not only because of "the critical situation in the country" and the many questions about the correct implementation of "social distancing at school" due to the coronavirus but also because there are only four buildings left of the Jesuit fathers' establishment in the Jeïtaoui district. The explosion at the port heavily hit the area with only the buildings' "skeletons" remaining. "We no longer have any doors or windows. We still have a few interactive boards, and a few tables and chairs," said Barakat, who estimated the cost of the damage at $820,000.
So, while waiting for international promises to materialize, local solidarity is taking the lead. "The repairs are going well, but are likely to take several months," she said. How will the start of the school year go? "Online from September 15 to September 28. After that, we will find a solution no matter what," Barakat promised her 1,100 students. Several options are possible, such as using the premises of Notre-Dame de Jamhour school.
Barakat also raised the issue of parents who have lost their homes. "They have nothing left and still have not found a place to settle. Can they, in this situation, think about school? Do their children have the ability to concentrate after the nightmare they have endured?" she asked.
Naturally, the first school sessions will focus on the tragedy. It is vital to dedicate some time for talking and listening to traumatized children and allow them to express themselves. Except we are short on time since we have to make up for the lost time from last year and complete the curricula, which are admittedly lighter.
"We do not have time to deal with the trauma of children," lamented a teacher, who preferred to remain anonymous. "Even our own trauma, we will have to bury it," she said, recalling that many teachers have seen their homes destroyed. In the meantime, the coming school year remains a puzzle, and teachers are not sure how to manage. "We still have no answers to technical questions related to the power outages. There is also no answer regarding the pedagogical management of the courses. How will we manage our time and that of the students between face-to-face and distance learning? she asked.
For parents, there are just as many questions. They mainly worry about the unaffordable prices of education. "How am I going to buy everything I need when I have paid 50,000 LL for a notebook, 25,000 LL for four pens and 300,000 LL for two textbooks?" asked a mother. The worst part is that computers or tablets have become indispensable tools that are now overpriced due to the national currency depreciation. Another mother, whose son is enrolled at Collège des Antonins in Baabda, welcomed the school's initiative for each student to give the school his/her textbooks from the previous year so that they can be allocated free of charge and anonymously to another child. "We don't have to worry about the cost of textbooks. When school starts, my son will find textbooks left by an older student on his desk," she said, relieved. What worries her, however, is the tuition fees. "We don't know anything yet," she said, even though the school administration usually offers payment facilities to parents facing financial difficulties. She further complained about the limitations of online education and the lack of student follow up by teachers. "Students with difficulties accumulate learning gaps that can only be filled by individual monitoring, which is not always possible," she lamented.
Attending school every other day?
However, in private schools, one thing is sure: they are determined to pursue their mission despite the losses without closing schools or expelling students as much as possible. "Our task is particularly difficult this year with the pandemic, the financial crisis and the destruction of schools," Father Boutros Azar, Secretary-General of the General Secretariat of Catholic Schools & Coordinator of the Association of Private Educational Institutions in Lebanon, told OLJ. He estimated the cost of the damage in Catholic schools in Beirut at $12.5 million. "But private education has no other choice but to continue its mission because it is out of the question to have a generation of ignorant," said Father Azar. He added that private schools hope for assistance from international donors for reconstruction and from the Lebanese state in the form of scholarships for students. "After all, it is the state that is responsible for Law 46, which granted salary increases to teachers and strained the budgets of private schools," he reminded.
For the success of the coming school year's "adventure," private schools are studying the means of "optimizing the hybrid teaching proposal" of the Minister of Education, as long as they maintain a "freedom of movement" at this level. "We could favor the alternate presence of the students every other day between morning and afternoon," he suggested. This way, one group of students will listen to the lesson in class, while another group will prepare the application exercises at home. This method will reduce reliance on distance learning marred by many obstacles. As for the thorny issue of school tuition, no decision has been made yet. "Everything will depend on the number of students, salaries, and school budgets," replied Father Azar.
If private schools' problem is essentially financial and linked to Covid-19, the question is much more political in public schools. "There is a fundamental problem in public education management," Professor Adnane el-Amine, a researcher in educational sciences, told OLJ. This is due to the "mismanagement of human resources and the hiring based on patronage and partisan affiliations," el-Amine explained. He further noted that "the entire public education system is built on the principle of religious and political patronage, and is sorely lacking in vision and ideas."
"The consequences are palpable on the functioning of public schools, heterogeneous decisions, performance level of schools and students, obsolete school programs, and the lack of a history book," said the expert. Under these circumstances, it is impossible to even hope for the minimum performance of the sector in this period of acute crisis. "The public sector is not ready for a new school year under these circumstances," he cautioned.
(This article was originally published in French in L'Orient-Le Jour on the 12th of September)
Broaching the topic of the new school year may seem incongruous against the woes of the Beirutis, who continue to suffer from the trauma caused by the port explosion that devastated part of the capital. Nevertheless, despite the series of catastrophes, fears, and crashed hopes that have been hitting Lebanon, starting with the politico-financial crisis, to the popular uprising to the Covid-19...