In Lebanon in crisis, the school year is marked by chaos

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BEIRUT (AP) – This fall, the academic year in Lebanon is plagued by the same chaos that has engulfed the rest of the country in its financial and economic crisis.

Thousands of teachers are on strike, demanding salary adjustments to cope with hyperinflation and the free fall of the currency. A month’s salary is now barely enough to fill a vehicle’s gas tank twice.

With severe fuel shortages, it is not even certain that they will be able to refuel. School buses are no longer a matter of course, and classroom heating during the cold winter months is far from guaranteed.

The start of the school year has been repeatedly postponed as the cash-strapped government negotiates with the teachers’ union an adjustment plan estimated at around $ 500 million.

As a result, while some private schools have started classes, most of the 1.2 million Lebanese students still do not know when they will return to school. Meanwhile, teachers have resigned en masse, looking for better opportunities abroad.

Many fear not only a missed academic year, but a lost generation in a country that prides itself on competing on a global scale with the numbers of scientists and engineers graduating.

Schools have already been disrupted over the past two years by a series of events – protests starting in late 2019 that have interrupted the school year, the switch to largely online classes in 2020 due to the pandemic and rising poverty. Some 400,000 children were out of school in 2020, according to UNICEF.

Parents in difficulty have transferred their children from private schools, usually presented as first-class education, to public schools. More than 50,000 students transferred last year, and the number is likely to be much higher this year, said Alaa Hmaid of Save the Children.

This puts pressure on the underfunded public sector, possibly to the detriment of the enlistment of Syrian and Palestinian refugees, who depend on the Lebanese public system.

“We don’t want to create a potential divide in the future where an entire generation is without education,” Hmaid said, calling for more resources for education.

According to UN figures, 55% of the Lebanese population now live in poverty, up from 28% in 2018, effectively wiping out the once large middle class. Wages fell as the currency lost 90% of its value against the dollar.

As many as 15% of the 53,000 teachers in Lebanese private schools have left the country, creating a serious shortage, said Rodolph Abboud, head of the Teachers’ Union.

Adding to the woes, the explosion at the port of Beirut last year, which devastated the capital, damaged more than 180 educational institutions.

In the midst of hardship, parents are resolutely looking for ways to keep their children in school.

Lara Nassar, 38, manages her family’s slow descent into poverty.

She was once an Arab kindergarten teacher, her husband ran a thriving food business, and their three children went to private school. But over the past three years, to keep costs down, she has been forced to move her two boys, now 18 and 15, from a high-end private school, first to a cheaper school. , then in a public school.

It was a tough decision, but she wanted to make sure she could afford to keep her youngest, now in grade 5, in a private school until she finished elementary school.

“I keep her in the picture. She knows that in two years I will have to move her to a public school. We cannot continue like this, ”Nassar said.

Nassar was fired last year due to reduced face-to-face classes during the pandemic. Due to the financial crisis, her husband had to lay off his staff and drastically downsize his business. Instead of preparing homemade meals, he runs a small, basic grocery store with no fuel and unreliable refrigeration.

Nassar is now his only employee. Amidst the teachers’ strikes, Nassar Kindergarten offered him his job. But she refused so that she could help her husband.

“We are living drop by drop,” she said.

She was able to get financial aid from her daughter’s school – a 50% reduction in school fees. A week before class starts, she is still looking for used books from local charities.

She burst into tears as she spoke of her sons’ love for basketball. They used to save their allowance to buy new shoes every year. Now she can barely buy them shoes for school – the cost is worth almost a month’s salary at the national minimum wage.

“Do you see what kind of things we have to worry about? ” she said.

Naima Sadaka said she watched the economic crisis unfold on the Facebook page she set up three years ago to help determine which schools to enroll her children in, after returning from Saudi Arabia with her family.

Over the past few months, the membership of the Schools in Lebanon page has increased by 50% to 12,000. Queries and comments have shifted from parents looking for recommendations for private schools to publications making advertising second-hand books or organizing carpools in the context of a shortage of school buses.

Many have contacted Sadaka in private messages asking for second-hand school uniforms, too embarrassed to post on the page, Sadaka said.

A parent should be worried about their children’s development and skills, but “here we are just concerned about getting them to school,” said Sadaka, who lives in the southern city of Sidon.

There is hardly any public transport, school transport costs have tripled, and government officials are not helping; then Sadaka had to find the trips to school for her three children on her own.

For her 9 and 10 year old children, she organized walks with a neighbor who works near the school they attend, which is funded by an Islamic charity. For her daughter, a first year student in a public school, Sadaka accepted a position as a French teacher, which mainly pays for gasoline. Her husband drops her and his daughter there every morning.

Formerly a teacher in Saudi Arabia, Sadaka said she regretted coming back. “It’s like going back 15 years,” accepting a meager salary, she said.

After Lebanon’s banks and hospitals, once a source of national pride and money, were crippled by the economic crisis, she said, “If they don’t save the education sector, then we will have nothing ”.

Maya, a mother of two, took no chances. She decided to leave in August after fuel shortages became so severe and no return to school date was set.

She and her husband moved to Cyprus, where she enrolled her children aged 6 and 8-6 in an English language school. The island’s only French school has been overwhelmed by recently arrived Lebanese students. Speaking by phone from Cyprus, she asked that her last name not be used to preserve her privacy as she adjusts to the new community,

At her children’s private school in Lebanon, at least 50 teachers and half of the students in her daughter’s class have left, she said.

“Who will teach our children? What friends will they have left? This is what worried me. It is no longer the same standard.

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