By Sunniva Rose
Palestinian students are matching their Lebanese counterparts in keeping up their studies online while schools in Lebanon remain closed because of a coronavirus lockdown.
Despite obstacles such as poor internet access, a lack of computers or tablets, and difficult living conditions, roughly three quarters of Palestinian children are continuing their classes through e-learning - about the same percentage as Lebanese students, according to the education ministry.
In Ein Al Hilweh, the largest of the 12 camps dotted across the country that house most of Lebanon’s Palestinians, life for children was difficult even before the Covid-19 pandemic hit the country. Shoot-outs in broad daylight are a common occurrence as rival radical groups, including ISIS affiliates, jostle for influence in the overcrowded camp of 80,000.
But Palestinian educators at the camp, located south of the city of Saida, responded quickly and creatively when the Lebanese government ordered the closure of schools on February 29 as a precautionary measure against the spread of the coronavirus.
“We worked together with teachers and the administration to gather the phone numbers of all students and follow up with each of them to encourage them to keep learning with videos and voice messages,” said Nada Abdallah, school counsellor at the Marj Ben Amer school in Ein Al Hilweh.
“There was a lot of pressure on us but working in a camp means you always have an emergency plan ready.”
Although WhatsApp is the most widely used application, the teachers send lessons through different social media platforms to reach as many students as possible. “It depends on what the family prefers. Those who cannot use Telegram use Facebook. Those who cannot use Facebook use YouTube and so on,” said Mrs Abdallah.
To increase students’ engagement, the teachers encourage them to post videos of themselves. Rafif Ahmad Awad, 7, was showered with praise after posting a video on Facebook giving instructions in English on how to prevent the spread of Covid-19. “First, wash your hands often. Second, stay home as much as you can. Third, cover your cough like this,” she says, burying her face in her elbow.
Teachers like Farah Thebish have also adapted their teaching material to life in confinement.
“I try to use colours, pictures and emotions so that students remember the lesson well," said Mrs Theibish, who teaches English at Marj Ben Amer. She involves family members in the teaching process as much as possible.
“I film role plays with my 9-year-old son that I send out to my students. They then make their own video with their mother, or sister, and send it back for me to correct,” she said.
Marj Ben Amer is run by UNRWA, the UN agency that manages schools, clinics and social services for Palestinians across the region.
UNWRA’s latest figures from 2015 show that 23.5 per cent of Palestinians in Lebanon were unemployed, but that number is expected to have risen sharply with the country’s recent financial crisis and a shutdown enforced by the coronavirus.
At the same time, UNRWA’s ability to help has been hampered by a lack of funding after the United States, its largest donor, slashed its contribution to zero last year.
UNWRA’s new head, Philippe Lazzarini, told The National in an interview that he had been impressed by the agency’s work during the pandemic, highlighting that there was a push to increase the number of children who can access online education.
Even in pre-pandemic Lebanon, Palestinian students were high achievers. Absenteeism at UNWRA schools is low – 2.5 per cent at Marj Ben Amer. The 2019 baccalaureate results in UNRWA’s nine secondary schools across the country show a pass rate of 97 per cent for the life science option, 80 per cent for sociology and economics, and 78 per cent in humanities.
Except for the latter category, the pass rates were generally lower in Lebanese government schools: 83, 73 and 80 per cent respectively. “Palestinian students work hard to get scholarships in and outside Lebanon," said Linda Hajj Hussein, deputy chief at UNRWA’s field education programme in Lebanon.
But despite the relatively high participation rate in e-learning, confined Palestinian students face two important obstacles: spotty internet connections and limited resources. On average, electricity cuts last 18 hours a day in Ein Al Hilweh. Subscription to a private generator costs up to $100 a month, a luxury that many families have had to give up as unemployment rises. Some students study by candlelight, said Mrs Theibish.
An internet subscription, costing about $20 a month, is also unaffordable for some, further restricting pupils’ access to their teachers. The internet in Lebanon is slow but often grinds to a halt in certain spots in Ein Al Hilweh, where infrastructure is poorer.
Since the schools were shut, some residents with internet connections have shared their passwords with their neighbours to help children study, said Mrs Theibish. “Some families who could afford internet before the crisis cannot anymore. In camps, people often work on a day by day basis. They do not have stable, monthly wages,” she said.
Out of 435 students at Marj Ben Amer school, 20 do not have internet at all. They are encouraged to study with neighbours who do.
A more widespread problem with online learning is the need for each child to have access to a mobile phone for long hours at a time when most families have only one. Laptops and tablets, which are more expensive, are rare.
“This puts additional pressure on children. I cannot communicate with all my students at the same time. That’s why I remain available all day if they want to contact me, to make sure they participate,” said Mrs Theibish.
For parents, supporting their children’s education through the shutdown is an important responsibility, said Fatima Hammoudeh, who has three children between the ages of 7 and 11. They share one phone and study two and a half hours a day each on average.
“Online learning is a difficult experience,” she told The National in a phone call. “It’s a big responsibility for me and I can feel the value of the school and teachers’ explanations are important. What they do is a big achievement.”
Confinement measures were slightly eased last week in Lebanon but it remains unclear when schools will reopen again. One thing is sure: "School is better," said Soha, Fatima's 7-year-old daughter who sat in the call with her. "She understands her teachers better in class," agreed her mother.