Back to school in Lebanon: 'no electricity and no fuel - how will our children learn?'

Education sector in crisis at start of academic year

Schools and universities in Lebanon are preparing to open their doors after the summer break, but the new academic year is far from a fresh start.

The education sector has been hard-hit by the financial crisis, and this is being felt by families and teachers across the country.

“We are living in a big crisis,” Hassan Khalid, an English language teacher at a public high school in Akkar, north Lebanon, told The National. “We’re suffering, us and our children.”

The devaluation of the Lebanese currency by more than 90 per cent since 2019 has made his monthly salary worth $100 or less at the black market exchange rate, while the inflation rate on essential goods like food has surpassed 400 per cent over the past year.

The salary "is very low,” Mr Khalid said. "We cannot eat."

Lebanon teachers protest to demand higher salaries

Lebanon teachers protest to demand higher salaries

The teacher was one of many to protest against deteriorating wages and living conditions in front of the Ministry of Higher Education in Beirut last week.

Despite promises of salary top-ups in select schools across the country, educators say it is still not enough.

“I would rather work something else, or even quit and not work at all, than work in these circumstances,” Hanadi, a French literature teacher at a private school in Beirut, told The National. She chose not to disclose her last name.

With two children of her own, Hanadi could be forced to pay almost 1,500,000 Lebanese pounds per month for her children to take the school bus.

At the official exchange rate, that is equivalent to $1,000 – but just $100 at the market rate.

It also accounts for half her salary, which is set to increase to 3,000,000 Lebanese pounds after a pay raise in October – or $200 on the parallel market.

“That’s half my salary gone and we still haven’t talked about living expenses,” she told The National.

Last month, Lebanon's former minister of education Tarek Majzoub announced that the new school year would be conducted in person, after almost two years of remote learning as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.

He said the ministry has done its best to ensure a smooth return to classes, including providing free vaccines and PCR tests for staff and securing financial incentives for schools, families and teachers.

However, Hanadi says the reality on ground is different.

While driving her children to school herself was once a favourite part of the teacher’s routine, the daily commute is now a struggle as the cash-strapped country grapples with fuel shortages.

These shortages have also worsened already erratic electricity supplies, as power plants are forced to halt operations due to lack of fuel.

Elena Mansour, a mother-of-three, is contemplating moving her youngest son to a school near their home as transport has become a luxury in Lebanon.

With no electricity to study at home and no fuel to get to school, how will our children learn?
Elena Mansour, mother of three in Lebanon

Her son, Tarek, 13, is a Year 9 student, who is expected to take the national exams in the summer.

“This is an important school year for him, and we’re really worried,” Ms Mansour told The National. “With no electricity to study at home and no fuel to get to school, how will our children learn?”

The son had been enrolled in a private school in Kfarshima, a town in the Baabda District of the Mount Lebanon Governorate, 20 minutes by car from Beirut.

But now the family is rushing to get him into another private school, just one street away from their home in the capital, to make the commute easier.

For Dania Chehab and her son, 19, moving to another university in the middle of his degree is not an option. But the university has allowed pupils to attend online classes because of the fuel crisis.

While Lebanon schools and universities all shifted to remote learning throughout the pandemic, the approach is more difficult to adopt this year.

Fuel shortages have plunged the country into darkness, leaving hospitals, homes and businesses without power.

State-run electricity company Electricite du Liban provides as little as two hours of power per day, while private generators can do little to compensate for the deficiencies, as they too are running out of fuel.

One day into the new academic year, the school in which Ms Chehab’s daughter, 15, is enrolled sent a note informing parents that classes would be held remotely as it did not have enough power to turn on its lights.

With no clear plan devised for the school year, parents and schools are facing uncertainty.

“You never know what tomorrow brings in Lebanon,” said Soumaya Radwan, a teacher who resigned this year, partly because of the crisis. “You wake up every day to an unfortunate surprising event.”

The only reasonable solution, Ms Chehab says, is for her children to leave and seek a future elsewhere.

“If you asked me two years ago, I would say that I never want them to leave,” she told The National. “I raised my kids to be by my side. But now, I would be hurting them by asking them to stay.”

Updated: September 17, 2021, 7:07 AM