Lebanon's public schools that were supposed to open on Monday will now reopen on October 10 after the country’s newly appointed education minister pushed back the academic year by two weeks over fuel shortages.
Abbas Halabi said the decision was taken in co-ordination with public school teachers to allow for a successful start of the academic year.
The education sector is one of several industries that have been hit hard by Lebanon’s deepening fuel shortages.
The scarcity intensified in recent weeks as the Central Bank cut subsidies for fuel imports over dwindling foreign currency reserves.
The subsidy cut pushed the prices of petrol and diesel up more than four-fold since the worst crisis to engulf Lebanon in decades began in late 2019.
The crisis, which the World Bank said was one of the most severe globally since the 1850s, has led the Lebanese pound to lose more than 90 per cent of its value against the US dollar.
It has slashed the real incomes of public servants such as teachers who are paid in the pound even as the cost of imported products have shot up.
Teachers have been protesting against deteriorating wages and living conditions for months, urging the education ministry to increase salaries and ensure access to fuel for transport and electricity.
Lebanon’s state-owned power company, unable to provide 24-hour electricity even before the crisis, has warned of a “total and complete” power cut by the end of the month unless it gets more supplies.
Private generators that used to make up for the shortfall have been struggling to cover the gap as they too are running short of diesel. Even hospitals, internet relays and other vital infrastructure risk shutting down.
Nisrine Chahine, who heads a committee representing part-time teachers, said the education sector was struggling due to the economic crisis.
“But this time, we’re not talking about a product, we’re talking about students,” she said.
Lebanon’s public education sector accommodates more than 400,000 learners.
But it is not only students whose academic year is in jeopardy. Ms Chahine said teachers were struggling to make ends meet with the price of a gallon of fuel costing almost a third of a teacher's monthly wage.
About 70 per cent of teachers now earn an average monthly salary of 1 million Lebanese pounds, once roughly $650 but now equivalent to just $60 at the market rate, Ms Chahine said.
“Is it possible for teachers earning 1 million, three times the price of a gallon of gasoline, to get to schools?” she said.
The start of the 2021-22 academic year will mark the return of students to schools after almost two years of remote learning because of the Covid-19 pandemic.
“I was shaken by the news,” Soha Rida, a public-school teacher and parent of three, told The National. “We are lost, the children are lost. The school has yet to register my children for the new academic year and there are no guarantees that the academic year won’t be delayed again.”
The coronavirus lockdown, a massive explosion at Beirut port in August 2020 and a year-long political crisis that left the country without a functioning Cabinet until early September have compounded Lebanon’s financial woes.
Prime Minister Najib Mikati said his government would prioritise reforms and seek negotiations with the international community to secure financial support to help Lebanon tackle the crisis.