The status of schools, colleges and day cares has been one of the most enduring issues of public debate throughout the pandemic.
Is it safe to re-open day cares? How can schools be retrofitted to allow good ventilation and reduce the spread of the virus? When will students be able to return to the classroom? What is the value of education at a distance, without the camaraderie of in-person interaction? How did teachers manage so many students at once, when chaos now seems to reign in every home with working parents and home-schooled children? Is it safe to put teachers on the frontlines?
Education has been deemed so important for our children’s future and our societies, as well as for the mental health of youth, that we’ve been willing in most countries to shut down almost every service and industry except for schools. Here in Quebec, educational and childcare institutions were re-opened early, partly because they were necessary for frontline workers and parents working at home, as well as the fact that children appeared to be bad transmitters of the virus. Crucially, however, the mental and physical health costs of not going to school and the interruption it would bring to social services were deemed unacceptably high. A similar calculus was made in many other western countries.
I thought of these debates when I saw last month a brief by Unicef, the UN body tasked with advocating for the rights of children, which described the state of education in Syria after ten years of war on the International Day of Education.
“Children in Syria continue to bear the brunt of the crisis,” the statement said. “The education system in Syria is overstretched, underfunded, fragmented and unable to provide safe, equitable and sustained services to millions of children."
Millions. According to Unicef’s figures, over 2.4 million children in the country are out of school, nearly 40 per cent of whom are girls. The pandemic probably led to an increase in that number throughout last year.
When I was reporting in the Middle East, I often met young boys and girls in Syrian refugee camps who had to work to earn money for their families, in lieu of getting an education. Most of these young children said they would rather be in school.
Inside Syria, that’s easier said than done. Even with the fighting largely over, one in three schools in the country is unusable because it’s been bombed or used for military purposes. That means overcrowding in the schools that are still standing. Suddenly, concerns over proper ventilation and classroom sizes seem like they belong to a different world.
It’s not about feeling guilty for the opportunities life does afford us, but rather about not taking them for granted. Throughout the war, children and their teachers in Syria braved grave hardships in order to get an education, risking their lives, and sometimes giving them up, for that goal. Throughout barrel bombings they nonetheless kept showing up. You cannot defer the future of a generation.
This means that governments in the region and elsewhere must continue to prioritise schools in their efforts to keep children and teachers safe from the virus, whether through inoculation, ventilation, or other safety measures. It means rewarding teachers as the frontline heroes they are and paying them a wage commensurate with their sacrifice. It means recognising that we are lucky to be able to send our young to school at all.
Kareem Shaheen is a veteran Middle East correspondent in Canada and a columnist for The National