Lebanese schools resume lessons after strike but problems remain

Education Minister Tarek Majzoub called for the strike over lack of state action to deal with crisis

A Lebanese pupil looks out of the window as he sits in his empty classroom after coming to collect the books he left before the COVID-19 lockdown, at Our Lady of Lourdes school in the Lebanese city of Zahle, in the central Bekaa region, on June 30, 2020. - Until recently, Lebanon's French-speaking schools, a large majority Catholic, taught 500,000 children -- equivalent to around half of all pupils nationwide. But the country's worst economic crisis since the 1975-1990 civil war has left them battling to stay afloat as parents struggle to pay fees, and put French-language education in jeopardy. (Photo by JOSEPH EID / AFP)

Many of Lebanon’s schools resumed online lessons on Monday after observing a week-long strike its education minister had called to draw attention to the sector’s plight.

On Sunday, Tarek Majzoub said recent meetings with officials had “positive outcomes” and they had “promised to do everything they can to protect the sector”.

He had raised the alarm about the lack of support to the education sector in a statement issued on March 8.

Lebanon’s education sector, previously a leader in the Levant region, fell from grace in the past year as the country’s crises mounted.

The failing economy, pandemic and Beirut port explosion not only hindered the quality of education at its schools and universities, but also the ability of many students to participate.

Hilda Khoury, director of counselling and guidance at the Ministry of Education, said the decision to take industrial action was reached in agreement with Lebanon’s educational bodies.

"The ministry has basic demands: proper funding, laptops and internet, and PCRs and vaccines," Ms Khoury told The National. "We want to ensure safe education for everyone equally."

Mr Majzoub gave the state two options when he announced the strike: provide these needs, or suspend the school year entirely.

One week later, with promises of change, classes resumed as usual. But for educators who seek actual reforms, the promises are not enough.

“The minister backtracked on the strike without any tangible changes taking place,” said Nisrine Chahine, a public schoolteacher. “They gave him the same promises they’ve been giving us for years.”

Ms Chahine leads the committee of contract teachers in primary education, one of the hardest-hit groups of educators.

For years, teachers on limited contracts in Lebanon have lived with no stable monthly income, social security or job benefits.

In the past year, they have had to cope with the effects of the economic crisis, such as rising prices, while paying for the tools needed for remote teaching from their own pockets.

“Some teachers were paid between 1,500,000 and 2,000,000 Lebanese pounds for an entire semester. How can they live on that kind of money for four-plus months?” Ms Chahine said.

Lebanon’s currency lost more than 80 per cent of its value over the past year, reaching 13,500 against the US dollar on the parallel market. Based on that rate, contract teachers are paid between about $110 and $150 per semester.

Educators have also expressed concerns about Lebanon’s national vaccination strategy, which has put teachers and lecturers in stage 3, after healthcare workers, the elderly, vulnerable groups with comorbidities, and employees of retirement homes and prisons.

Given the current slow pace of vaccination, teachers worry their turn is far off, even though, according to the government’s lockdown strategy, they are expected to return to schools for blended learning from March 22.

“I teach several grades and 112 students, on average, and I fear for my safety and theirs,” said Dayana Mansour, a teacher at a public school in Beirut’s southern suburbs.

“With increasing Covid cases and the spread of variants, it’s not safe to go back to closed classes and rooms without being vaccinated.”

Parents echoed Ms Mansour’s fears.

Maysaa Hallal, a mother of three, said she would prefer to keep her children at home. But because they attend a public school, she worries that attendance will be compulsory, forcing her to choose between their safety and their education.

Ms Hallal moved her daughters from a private to a public school for the 2020-2021 academic year after her husband, who previously worked two jobs, became unemployed.

But remote learning also presents many challenges. With only one smartphone in the family, the girls take turns to study, a process already hindered by weak internet and recurring power cuts.

"There were days when they couldn't study at all because we had no power for the whole day," Ms Hallal told The National. "It's a mess that will only get worse."