In the village of Aley, located on Mount Lebanon, a Lebanese family sits on the balcony of their home to escape the heat. As the country grapples with the ongoing economic crisis, power cuts often last more than 18 hours a day and prevent the use of air conditioning. While visiting the town, I approach the family and ask Huda – a mother of two girls – about her preparations for the school year, which will officially begin in late September. Suddenly, one of the children, Karen, interrupts the conversation: “For now, there is no school this year because they don’t have electricity or gasoline just like us!”
This innocent child’s words speak volumes about the disheartening factors that are hindering the start of school in Lebanon. There is neither state electricity nor diesel to run private generators, and barely any gasoline available – not to mention the marked rise in prices – for parents to get their children to school. Furthermore, parents are unable to cover the costs of education, as the value of their salaries has dropped by more than 90 percent, and the monthly national minimum wage barely reaches US $30 dollars today. Over the two-year crisis, the value of the local currency has deteriorated dramatically and the exchange rate for the US dollar has increased 15-fold, in a country that relies on imports for 90 percent of its supplies—even to cover basic needs such as medicine, food, books, and pens.
“I withdrew my children from private school because the costs had doubled, but the public school could not welcome them [due to] the lack of space,” Huda – Karen’s mother – explained. Amid the crisis, Lebanon is witnessing an exodus from private schools to public schools, where tuition costs are lower. However, it is still high for most Lebanese nowadays, even as the quality of state education has deteriorated considerably as a result of government negligence. Huda revealed that the local public school admitted its inability to provide electricity in the classrooms or transportation to the students for the time being and has refused to accept her child.
According to all indicators, there will be no return to normal for most Lebanese schoolchildren this year.
According to all indicators, there will be no return to normal for most Lebanese schoolchildren this year. UNICEF representative in Lebanon Ettie Higgins told Inside Arabia that “between 750,000 and 1 million children will be out of school this year,” a significant number representing between 38 percent and 50 percent of children in Lebanon.
Higgins said that UNICEF cannot act as a substitute for the government in meeting school needs, as it “respects the national responsibility of the Lebanese state to ensure that the education system provides access to quality education for all children.”
The Lebanese Ministry of Education has apparently developed an initiative to return to face-to-face learning while calling on the international community and other ministries to fund the public and private education system in Lebanon. The Minister of Education, Tarek Majzoub, stated that the decision to resume in-person learning despite the persistent COVID-19 epidemic and the low vaccination rate was taken to “save the school year after the disruption of the last two years.” Meanwhile, widespread power and internet interruptions prevent any possibility of distance learning.
Rola, another Lebanese mother of two daughters, believes that “the Ministry of Education has failed, just like the rest of the government,” and accuses the Majzoub of “living in La La Land.”
“The question is not whether there will be a school year or not; there should not be a school year,” she said in an interview with Inside Arabia. “I worship God as well as science, I would give my life to educate my children. But how, under these conditions, can we send our children to school? How can I take my children every day when two barrels of gasoline costs 700,000 pounds (almost the minimum wage) and lasts barely two days? I haven’t been able to buy red meat for a year. How am I supposed to buy stationery and books now? ”
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The Breakdown of Education
The breakdown of the education sector is a dramatic consequence of the economic crisis.
The World Bank has described the current situation in Lebanon as one of the three most serious economic collapses since the mid-19th century. Poverty currently affects about 74 percent of the total population, and 82 percent of the population is living in a condition of multidimensional poverty, as shown by ESCWA data for the year 2021.
At the end of the last school year, more than 30 percent of Lebanese children were estimated to be suffering from hunger. Moreover, 80 percent of health workers reported that their children were having difficulty concentrating on their studies at home—either because of malnutrition or poor mental health.
Souad Gharios, head of We Are One (Nahnou Wahad), an NGO which supports families in need, told Inside Arabia that “in a two-child family with an income equivalent to the average salary, one child has to leave school so that the other child can learn,” a phenomenon that exacerbates social inequalities and threatens an entire generation.
A recent UNICEF survey found that 15 percent of households in Lebanon had unenrolled their children from school in the previous academic year.
A recent UNICEF survey found that 15 percent of households in Lebanon had unenrolled their children from school in the previous academic year. In some cases, children were put to work or married off to ease the financial burden on their families. More than 700,000 children (ages 3-18), who were already out of school, continue to face multiple barriers that limit their ability to access quality education, suggesting significant long-term effects on their well-being and opportunities. Children with disabilities, girls and adolescents, refugees, and those from the poorest families are the most likely to never return to school.
Teachers to the Government: We Can’t Go On Like This
The inability of parents to send their children to school and the schools’ incapacity to accommodate students or provide electricity and transportation are not the only issues that jeopardize education in Lebanon. Indeed, the recent proposals for a teacher’s strike could constitute a death blow to the Minister’s plan to start the school year against all odds.
“In Lebanon, the conditions to carry out the school year have not been met,” Hasan Zitouni, a secondary school teacher and member of the independent teachers’ union, told Inside Arabia. Zitouni further explained that “what the Ministry proposes is a plan that does not solve this existential crisis, especially with the doubling of the number of students in public schools.”
The drastic economic and psychological impacts on teachers are not much different from that of parents and children. Two years ago, teachers were demanding an increase in salaries to cover the inflation of 121 percent between 2006 and 2017, while today inflation has reached 900 to 1,200 percent. Accordingly, health insurance coverage for most teachers has fallen from 90 percent to 20 percent.
“No salaries, no benefits, no hospitalization, no transportation allowance—we can’t continue teaching!”
“No salaries, no benefits, no hospitalization, no transportation allowance—we can’t continue teaching! We can’t even cover the cost of going to school!” Zitouni asserted.
The exhausted instructor also pointed out that an increasing amount of teachers have decided to emigrate: “[I was among ten friends on staff], four of the most qualified of us went to Erbil and Italy.” Zitouni believes that not guaranteeing the return to school and thus depriving children of education, “represents the destruction of the last functional institution in Lebanon.”
Children are Most Affected by the Crisis
“Teachers are not able to provide quality education anymore,” Alaa Hamid, an education specialist who works for Save the Children, declared to Inside Arabia. Furthermore, she shared her deep concern about the impact on children, as they are “most vulnerable and most affected by the accumulation of economic, social, and health crises in Lebanon.”
Alaa added that more and more parents are complaining that their children suffer from anxiety, insomnia, as well as feelings of fear and sadness. While school usually would provide a social space for children to develop skills to manage and express these sentiments, they are now deprived of it, she said. The education specialist calls for making children’s mental health a national priority along with the development of a tangible back-to-school plan, “so that the education service meets the emotional needs and ensures the protection of the child.”
The situation in Lebanon poses increasing challenges to children, particularly their emotional and intellectual capacities.
The situation in Lebanon poses increasing challenges to children, particularly their emotional and intellectual capacities, which are still developing. When the state fails to guarantee the rights of its citizens in terms of access to food, medicine, water, and electricity, education is often the next public need to be sacrificed—and children are the greatest victims.
These developments represent a dangerous yet not unexpected turn in the Lebanese predicament, and could have catastrophic consequences in the medium and long term for the country’s future.