BEIRUT: With over a month passed since the abrupt nationwide closure of schools across Lebanon, teachers and students are having to adjust to the new "distant" reality and absorb the virus-related shocks threatening to derail the academic calendar.
The challenges faced vary according to domestic circumstances. Yet whatever the school's distant learning arrangements, students will struggle if their domestic environment cannot provide the tools needed to participate, such as electricity generators, good internet, available devices or support from parents or other domestic figures.
Other problems are more indiscriminate; for most teachers, a screen is no replacement for a classroom.
The education minister, Tarek Majzoub, announced last week a comprehensive distant-learning plan, involving three mediums - paper, tv and electronic - that together aim to accommodate the varying domestic circumstances different students naturally face.
Yet schools have already adapted their own distant learning arrangements. "Last week I had seven live-video lessons," Lea, a grade 12 student at Ghazali High School in Choueifat, explained. "We have WhatsApp groups with our teachers, who tell us when we will have lessons on Zoom." Before the closures, Lea's schedule involved seven lessons a day, whereas now she is receiving roughly a fifth of that amount via Zoom. Despite this, she feels on top of her books, adding that outside her Zoom classes she does much work on her own.
Other private schools are also providing live-video lessons for students. "My kids in grades 6 and 9 now have live online sessions from 8 a.m. till 2 p.m. through Microsoft Teams," explained Rola, whose children attend Wells Spring School in Mathaf. Compared to her children's previous class schedules, their online schedule is relatively similar. "They are covering new chapters and the learning is ongoing as if school had not stopped. They want to complete the curriculum till the end," she continued.
Overall, live-video lessons seem the best option available in covering new material and continuing the curriculum with teachers. In Lea's case, with reduced classes, her live-video lessons are intended to cover what remains. "All our subjects are nearly finished we just have a chapter or two left which we are now covering on Zoom. Our exams are meant to start on the June 22. I am confident about them." Lama, a parent and teacher at Ecole des Trois Docteurs, a private school in Beirut, drew a positive about the live-video classes, also through Microsoft Teams. "My son started online lessons on Monday. This is better than just sending worksheets and homework. With online classes the teachers can resume their role and the students can learn new topics."
Yet others are facing greater difficulty in finishing the curriculum. At Roaa Educational High School in Tripoli, the distant learning arrangement does not include live video lessons, but is currently limited to an online platform called eschool for distributing and accessing exercises. 'We are not giving our students much new material,' explained Yasmine, an Arabic teacher at Roaa. "Almost everything we give them is revision so of course we will not finish the curriculum." Asked why, Yasmine cited a lack of education among some parents, rendering the teachers' absence more critical.
Live-video lessons could help to alleviate these difficulties to some extent, but their implementation is so far patchy. For Assem, a grade 8 student at Nazih el-Bizri, a public school in Sidon, the switch to live-video lessons via Teams is yet to happen, so teachers are using messages via Google Classroom to communicate with students and give them assignments. Yet without live-video lessons, material is mainly restricted to revision. Citing the accumulative effects of the revolution and the lockdown, Assem is doubtful his class will finish their curriculum on time.
While a lack of live-video lessons seems to make curriculum continuation more challenging, online platforms such as Google Classroom and eschool at least allow for a certain degree of communication between students and teachers, with space for comments, questions and corrections to occur. "Students are taking assignments seriously and we the teachers can go through the answers with them as if we are together in school," explained Yasmine from Roaa school, referring to the eschool platform.
However for those lacking the necessary skills and/or technology to operate such platforms, the distant-learning arrangements are more basic. For the kids residing in Ouzai refugee shelter, Saida, and who attend two local public schools, distant learning is restricted to instructions on WhatsApp.
"The kids have textbooks and the teachers just send page numbers and homework instructions to the parents via WhatsApp," outlined Omar Saad, communications officer with SB Overseas, an educational NGO operating in the shelter. Limited to just receiving homework instructions in the morning and the answers in the evening in order to check, the students have no interaction with their teachers.
"They cannot ask questions to their teachers nor understand the objectives of the lesson. It's not a good system," Saad said. This arrangement contrasts to the Lebanese students attending the same school, but separated by an earlier period in the day.
"Students in the earlier period are using a Google platform," according to Saad. "They create accounts for each class with homework explanations where students can make comments that teachers answer. The Google system is much better but generally there is a different system for refugees."
In Ouzai's case, the major reason for this, is a lack of knowledge among the parents, not to mention a shortage of tech devices, Saad explained. To mitigate this, SB's teachers are in daily contact with parents in the shelter, in order to answer the school-related questions that the parents are unable to explain to their kids.
While distant-learning is clearly presenting challenges across the board, the resources available to different schools and families suggest that some are coping better than others. Schools such as Well Springs and GHS seem to be absorbing the shocks of lockdown as well as can be expected, through transferring class schedules to live-video lessons.
Yet others are slower off the mark, or simply unable to implement such measures, suggesting that school closures are likely widening disparities in Lebanese education and putting further distance between the haves and have-nots.