#LearningNeverStops(?): A teacher and refugee student’s reflections on Covid-19 school closures in Lebanon
This article is part of a collection of blog posts related to the education in emergencies response to COVID-19.
Whether in-classroom or online amidst COVID-19 closures, teaching and learning for Syrian refugees in Lebanon are complex endeavors.
When Lebanon’s public schools closed due to Covid-19, Asma, a 10th grade Syrian refugee student, was visiting her sister outside Beirut. The WhatsApp communication from her school suggested school would re-open in a few days: “I told my parents that we were closing to disinfect the school, then they told us we’re closed till March 8, then March 18, then March 27, then April 12.” But this is not the first time Lebanon’s public schools have closed. School closures during Lebanon’s civil war (1975-1990) and including in the past year of thawra, or 2019 revolution, have been pervasive. How teachers and their students, like Asma, experience and act on school closures can begin to inform our understandings of learning continuity amidst disruptions.
During the past year’s revolution, schools were simply closed, with no distance instruction opportunities. But with looming uncertainty about the pandemic’s timeline, the situation is different now. With 188 country-wide school closures, global education actors are strongly advocating for learning continuity, even in no- or low- technology resourced environments. Lebanon, too, is expecting teaching and learning to continue. This is no easy task in a context where 3G coverage is limited, in several areas. The possibilities of online learning are automatically reduced, and teachers have resorted to WhatsApp as a platform for their teaching.
In a country already struggling with an economic crisis, Syrian refugee learners are experiencing many layers of crises: fleeing their homes, learning in afternoon shifts within an under-funded public school system; living through economic collapse as non-citizens without social protections; and, now facing a global pandemic.
When the revolution in Lebanon began last year, Asma’s school closed. At the time, she was “sitting at home, with no classes.” However, with Covid-19 related school closures, Asma’s teachers have swiftly initiated WhatsApp groups for the Grade 10 students.
Though all of Asma’s teachers are trying to use WhatsApp, they each use it differently: “The Arabic teacher sends first with examples, then sends them again in voice messages. Few days later, she sends homework…The Chemistry teacher sends handwritten notes through photographs and voice notes of explanations. The Biology teacher sends YouTube links.” Asma describes the futility of these YouTube videos. “The YouTube link’s in English, so if there’s something we don’t understand, we can’t stop and ask [the teacher].” Though teachers continue sending homework and lessons, little do they know that Asma is stuck in her sister’s town without her books. “My books are at home, so I’m behind on my studies.”
Students like Asma, now expected to self-monitor and pace their learning, are facing unanticipated challenges. Asma uses WhatsApp to reach her teachers to clarify any questions and to submit her homework. The picture below, was one Asma received from her English teacher. For homework, the students have to make sentences using the words and send them back to the teacher, over WhatsApp.
Asma’s struggles in Math are now further exacerbated through remote instruction. “In school, I barely understood his explanations. How will I understand on WhatsApp?” Asma already wants her teachers to stop using WhatsApp and the phone as a means to provide instruction. Instead, she “would rather attend classes in the summer than continue studying over the phone like this, barely understanding anything.” Her Math teacher sent the picture below to the students, but without any explanations or voice notes. Students are expected to solve the exercises and send them back to the teacher. In this case, Asma does not send any homework because she is unable to follow the lesson.
The absence of information regarding final examinations is stressful for students. Asma describes the accompanying uncertainties: “I think they won’t give us a difficult [final] exam since this is happening, or that there will be no exam at all.” Meanwhile, Asma’s friends speculate that the academic year will be altogether cancelled, or the midyear exams will count as the final. Asma knows she has little say in the matter: “When I stop to think about it, we studied 3 months or more, so why should they go to waste? I hope they don’t cancel [the academic year] because I wouldn’t want to repeat, but I don’t have a choice.”
As a contract teacher, Ms. Nayla, is paid hourly for teaching second-shift Syrian learners in the public school. When schools closed owing to Covid-19, she first set up a WhatsApp group for Grade 9, so they could continue learning for their high-stakes, national exam in June. As the group administrator, she turned off messaging for group members to avoid flooding it with unnecessary messages. At a fixed time each evening, for 10 minutes, she disables these settings so her students can discuss questions and ideas on the group. She describes the process: “Then I forward all important questions I get privately along with the answers, so that the other students can learn as well… They send me the homework, then I correct it and send it back to them. I send the correction sheet on the group for all to see what the correct answers are.”
WhatsApp-based instruction has stretched preparation and teaching time. Ms. Nayla seeks to minimize mobile data usage and expenses for her students’ families as a consequence of her online instruction. Some students’ families do not have phone access, or share one phone with their siblings, who are also trying to learn simultaneously. In other cases, students’ fathers use the phone during the daytime for their work. One student refused to be in the group, while another student did not have a phone and used a friend’s Facebook Messenger to send questions. When there were too many messages, one mother removed the group from the phone, “so the student was effectively no longer in the class because of this.” In these situations, Ms. Nayla has no choice but to “repeat from scratch.”
Teaching over WhatsApp can disrupt learning continuity. In class, Ms. Nayla could “see if students understand, if they’re focused and following.” This monitoring is now impossible: “Over the phone I don’t know if they’re actually reading or watching or listening to the voice notes, who is paying attention and who is not. I have no way of knowing this.” Learning continuity is evasive in these cases: “On the day of the lesson, students tell me they understand, but the very next day they say that they are lost again and can’t grasp the information.”
Teachers need autonomy, but also buy-in from school leaders. Ms. Nayla recalls being directed to send her second-shift Syrian students only a curricular plan, suggesting “(refugee) students study alone.” Meanwhile, the Lebanese students in the morning shift are “doing online teaching, with video calls.” When the principal found out about the WhatsApp groups, Ms. Nayla was told: “You don’t have to do all this work and tire yourself, don’t make the students get used to this.” Other colleagues were “afraid to do something the administration did not approve of.”
Clear and timely information is critical for teacher and learner well-being. Describing the “psychological pressure” among students over the fear of losing a year, particularly for refugee learners who may have experienced other disruptions and difficulties in their education pursuits, Ms. Nayla suggests the “only solution is for the Minister to decree that all students pass their year. Otherwise, they will be too anxious. Right now, they don’t know anything about the fate of their academic year. This would reassure them. They are still young, just starting their lives, why should they be tortured this way?” Ms. Nayla is unclear if she will be paid for her teaching. Her son just lost his job, and her family is now without an income. Ms. Nayla is not considering her future options yet: “My mind is blocked,” but even amidst the uncertainty, “if this is the situation at school, I will continue teaching.”
The views expressed in this blog are the author's own.