Determined to Learn: Some 37,000 Palestine Refugee Students in Lebanon are “Back-to-School”

22 February 2021
UNRWA students receives Back to Learning kits as they return to school. © 2020 UNRWA Photo

The 2019-2020 scholastic year was challenging for students and teachers the world over. In Lebanon, schools across the country closed in late February in response to the COVID-19 outbreak. As a result, UNRWA activated its Self-Learning Programme (SLP), which allowed students to complete the remainder of the school year remotely, from home. This 2020-2021 scholastic year, UNRWA welcomed students back to learning through a blended approach to learning, which includes remote and in-school education. This way, UNRWA aims to safeguard the health and wellbeing of students and staff, while also engaging students in a more familiar learning environment and taking the additional load off parents.

Mohammed Sherkawi, a teacher at the UNRWA Deir Al Qasi school in Saida explains, “The physical return to school is important, despite the difficult situation posed by COVID-19. It enhances the students’ social participation and encourages them to pursue their goals. It is a challenge in this critical period, but the education staff are working hard to do the best they can whether remote or in-person, all the while maintaining the health and safety for the good of the students.”

On 2 November 2020, UNRWA schools began to open their doors to students in line with the health and safety measures advised by the World Health Organization and the Ministry of Public Health in Lebanon as well as the Agency’s COVID-19 Protocol for the safe and healthy re-opening of UNRWA educational institutions. Unfortunately, schools shortly closed again with a country-wide lockdown.  As schools continue to open and close in line with the Ministry of Higher Education’s directives, UNRWA is closely adhering to health protocols to reduce the spread of COVID-19 and protect the health of students, school staff and the community at large. UNRWA ensures that remote learning is fully activated during all lockdown periods to guarantee children’s uninterrupted access to education.

In order to improve student well-being and mitigate any potential shocks children may have faced due to the pandemic, the Psychosocial Support (PSS) programme continues to offer numerous interventions to support students’ re-acclimation to schools. Counsellors prepared students by conducting extensive ‘Care Calls’ to address issues of fear, anxiety and panic and ensure that children and their families are confident schools are safe for their return. Counsellors also held numerous awareness sessions and provided individual and group counselling services. Furthermore, through the Back-to-Learning campaign, UNRWA along with its education partners, disseminated messages widely on social media platforms to motivate and encourage children’s return to learning, whether in-school or remotely.

Students are undoubtedly happy at the prospect of returning at school frequently and seeing their friends and teachers regularly for the first time since February 2020, but the classroom atmosphere is markedly different. Unlike previous years, students are attending their classes in smaller groups, on rotation, to ensure that physical distancing measures can be properly maintained.

Samer, a sixth-grade student at the UNRWA Deir Al Qasi School was delighted to be able to go back to school after such a long period studying at home. “I’m so happy to return to school, it gives us hope. We can have our right to education and we can participate in class, but I am not 100 per cent happy because some of my friends, teachers, and activities are still missing.”

The number of students per classroom and classroom layouts have changed in order to ensure that a distance of one meter is maintained between students and teachers.  Students are also being regularly reminded to wash their hands, avoid touching their faces, wear their masks properly and avoid sharing their belongings with other children.

Beyond the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, the economic situation in Lebanon is significantly deteriorating, putting additional pressures and hardships on families. Many Palestine refugee families in Lebanon have one mobile device at home making remote learning complicated, especially when there is more than one student in the family. The costs of mobile and home internet in Lebanon are prohibitively high, particularly so during the current economic crisis, and connectivity issues are further exacerbated by electricity shortages.  Shahed, a 14-year-old Palestinian refugee from Syria, is glad to be back at school and dreams of becoming doctor in the future. “Coronavirus deprived us from attending school, so we studied remotely which is not enough as we faced a lot of challenges. So, today I am so happy to continue my studies in school with my friends and try to make our dreams come true.”

Like every year, UNRWA distributed Back-to-Learning kits to some 37,000 UNRWA students returning to school. The kits contain basic stationery and supplies such as pencils, pens, copybooks, erasers, sharpeners, rulers and a geometry set for grades 9-12.  This kit makes a big difference in reducing the financial burden on parents, which is even more pressing this year. It is with thanks to the Government of Belgium and the European Union, through the EU Regional Trust Fund in Response to the Syrian Crisis, the EU Madad Trust Fund, that these kits and other PSS services are available to all UNRWA students yearlong!

The educational experiences of children all over the world have been severely impacted by the pandemic. While this rings true for Palestine refugee students, UNRWA remains committed to ensure that children continue to receive an equitable, inclusive, and quality education—whether in schools, or remotely. UNRWA is proud of its students and their parents for their steadfastness, resilience and creativity in continuing to learn during this difficult time.