With sun streaming into the rooms and a fresh breeze wafting in from the nearby sea, the small public school of Rmeileh, a 40-minute drive south of Beirut, is filled with children’s chatter.
This week, starting January 10, should be the first back to school after a three-week Christmas break but Rmeileh School is one of less than a handful across Lebanon that opened its doors, hindering hundreds of thousands of children’s education.
Of 185 schools in the Mount Lebanon district, only three are opening this week, Teachers Union branch vice president Manal Hdaife said.
Schools in the whole of Beirut and the south and north of Lebanon remain closed.
The increased spread of coronavirus in the country is the reason for some schools delaying opening for another week, such as those in Bint Jbeil, an hour north of Beirut.
But the main reason is a teachers' strike over inadequate healthcare coverage, lack of pay rises and a transport allowance.
The Association of Public Administration Employees on January 10 declared an open strike, to end only when the government met their three strict demands.
“If we don’t have these three things we will not go back to school,” Ms Hdaife told The National.
The Lebanese lira has now reached 32,000 to the US dollar, a more than 95 per cent depreciation since 2019, sending more than eight in 10 people into poverty.
Rmeileh School principal Nadine Chabab believes opening her school for 717 students, aged between 4 and 14, despite the strike is an act of resistance.
“For some time in Lebanon people think of resistance as a war, but here we have another plan for resistance, which is education … it’s a time for building our country,” Ms Chabab said.
She said her salary was $1,600 two years ago, dramatically reduced now to $80 a month, making it extremely difficult to provide for her household. But she is steadfast in putting the future of her pupils first.
“Opening the schools and letting students come and learn will help make a better future for Lebanon,” said Ms Chabab, 42.
Unicef, the UN's children's agency, says urgent action must be taken by the government to allow the smooth opening of schools.
About 1.2 million children in Lebanon have already experienced two years of disruption due to the coronavirus, and 700,000 are out of school mainly because of rising poverty.
Recognising that teachers are struggling to make ends meet, Unicef Lebanon told The National there could be “dire consequences” for children’s futures.
“Opening schools for in-person learning is essential both to address learning loss over the last two school years and to save the system from collapse,” Unicef Lebanon said.
Before the start of this school year in September 2021, pupils across Lebanon had been required to learn online because of the pandemic.
Rmeileh School’s English teacher Fatima Kiwan says this has harmed children’s learning.
“We have had many problems when they came back to school, they didn’t know how to write letters, the alphabet, numbers. Someone in Grade 3 can’t write their name,” Ms Kiwan said.
After teaching for 27 years her face still shines when she speaks of her pupils.
“All of my students are like my babies,” she said, adding she was disappointed in other teachers striking.
“Why can my kids go to school and build a future for themselves but others can’t? I consider them all my kids.”
Beyond the impact on learning children, not attending school also hinders the development of social skills.
Taking time out from running around with friends during morning break, Mohamed Zoghbi, 9, told The National that he was happiest in the school playground.
“I was so happy to come back, I wasn’t happy learning online,” said Mohamed, a Grade 4 pupil.
Ms Hdaife, also a principal at the Kamal Jounblat Official School in the Chouf area of Lebanon, understands the children’s education is affected by the continuing strike, but feels she has no other choice.
“What can we do? I spend all of my salary on fuel to go to school. So it’s a hard situation,” she said.
The Ministry of Education was unable to comment before publication.
While private schools across Lebanon are not part of the public sector strike, most of them, if not all, delayed reopening schools for another week until January 17.
Some gave coronavirus as the reason while others said tuition fees were no longer covering salaries, according to local media and private teachers to whom The National spoke.
Lebanon's Minister of Public Health, Firass Abiad, said schools must be opened for pupils to have an opportunity at education, especially considering learning online was not successful.
“This year it’s going to be even worse, because we have much higher rates of shortages in electricity and the internet is not working properly,” Dr Abiad said.
As the Omicron variant has sent new Covid-19 cases to about 6,500 a day, Dr Abiad said the World Health Organisation and Unicef helped to provide face masks and sanitisers “to all schools functioning in Lebanon".
“We [also] provided for 80,000 Rapid Antigen Tests, 10,000 PCR tests and guidance on when to test,” he said.
But coronavirus is the least of most teachers' concerns.
“We’re not worried about coronavirus, we’re worried about the economic, social situation and education in Lebanon. This is the most important,” Ms Chebab said.