For Palestinian Students: The Hardest is Yet to Come!

For Palestinian Students: The Hardest is Yet to Come!
*Palestinian journalist. Member of “The Palestinian Media Collective in Lebanon “Interact”.
It was a tough academic year for Palestinian students, the teaching staff at the UNRWA, and the parents; and all signs point to even harder times coming up. The problem extends well beyond Covid-19. The underlying issue is the exceptional circumstances that the host country, Lebanon, is facing these days, and which impacts the Palestinian refugees in all aspects of life.
UNRWA, just like other schools in Lebanon, launched a distance learning campaign in the aftermath of the pandemic that weighed heavily on Lebanon and the whole world. It was a new experience, not preceded by adequate preparations, which had to be adopted to maintain the educational process and pursue teaching amid compulsory days off.  None of the administrative staff, teachers, students, or their parents was prepared or trained for this new situation. 
Salem Dib, chief of UNRWA’s education program, expressed satisfaction with the distance learning process. However, major challenges need to be addressed, most notably that 30% of the students were not able to join their classmates, either because the Internet was not available, or because there were not enough electronic devices at the household.” In view of the situation, Dib added, we have launched a compensation program for the benefit of more than 8,000 students and their families who were provided Internet connection and tablets ”. 
From the point view of the students, there are positive aspects in distance learning which include not being in overcrowded classrooms and having the possibility to rely on themselves. As for the negative aspects, they all agreed that they are mainly related to degraded infrastructure, such as slow or no internet, and power outages, especially that many households are not subscribed to alternative electricity sources. 
Besides, there are not enough computers or smartphones available to all students living in the same household. Nevertheless, non-attendance was largely related to negligence, and a large number of students complained of lack of coordination with teachers regarding the time of the sessions, which sometimes took place on the spot or were announced only a quarter an hour ahead of time.
Ahmed Fathi, a student in the first Baccalaureate year, complained of distance learning mechanisms, especially that next year, he will have to take the exams for the official high school diploma. He is wondering: “how can I sit for the exams next year if I know nothing about half of the current year curriculum?”
For Umm Mohammed, a mother of two students in the elementary, her daughter (six years) was not able to learn through distance learning. This year is fundamental for her. Next year, the curriculum will be too heavy and intensive because her child does not know yet the numbers or the basics in English and Arabic alphabet.”

Students moving to “UNRWA”
“UNRWA” expects, according to the chief of education program, that “20% to 30% of students in public and private schools will move to the Agency’s schools. Therefore, preparations are under way. If schools reopen as in normal cases, the requirements will be addressed in terms of additional teaching staff, books and stationery.”
The main challenge remains the limited capacity of UNRWA schools. Enrolling an additional 10,000 students or more will increase the burden and the pressure on classrooms, which are already overcrowded. There is a pressing need for new buildings or extra classrooms, Dib added, but there are several proposals in this regard, including having morning and evening shifts, or sending students to some other schools that have vacancies.” 
Abu Bassel, the father of three students enrolled in public schools in Al-Kharroub province, said that in previous years, he sent his children to public or private schools close to his house. But this year he does not know what to do after the Minister of Education declared that Lebanese students moving from private schools will have priority in public schools over Palestinians already enrolled in public education.  In this case, he will have to send his kids to UNRWA schools, far from their household, which means, that the school environment  will be different and there will be more expenses. 
Schools Transformed into Quarantine Centers
UNRWA confirms that it is committed to education. However, turning Alsamou’ School in Ein El Helwa camp and Siblin center into quarantine centers is one of its responsibilities toward the Palestinian refugees. So far, no COVID-19 cases were admitted to Alsamou’ School. If this remains the case, the school will reopen normally. However, according to Dib: “if the school receives patients, then things will be reorganized. There are several suggestions to deal with the situation, including sending students to other schools and dividing them into morning and evening shifts.” As for Siblin center, the part that has been converted into a quarantine is isolated from the classrooms and workshops, and therefore will not affect the reopening of the school located within the center”. 
University students 
University education is not within the responsibilities of UNRWA’s education program, which deals with basic education up to the ninth grade, or Brevet. Secondary education was included later in 1993.  However, in the year 2000, the need arose to assist university students through grants allocated to support Palestinian students.  The Canadian Research and Development Center was the first to award scholarships to girls only, and the initiative was then followed by other donors.
Challenges reduce the ability of the Palestinian students to pursue education. The opportunities available to them are grants from UNRWA if their average is 80 percent or more. Other donors include: the Palestinian Students Fund, the President Mahmoud Abbas Fund, student frameworks, the Lebanese University, and the Siblin Training Center. As a result of the current situation and its impact on Palestinian refugees, hundreds of students may not pursue university education if no assistance were granted.  Parents of Palestinians students might have to declare a state of emergency and demand that UNRWA exert every effort to support university students. The Palestinian factions are also requested to assume their responsibility. Mahmoud (a student at the Faculty of Engineering at the Arab University of Beirut) stated that he is not certain about his future so far, especially that the university fees are high, and his father lost his job. Nawal (a social science student at the Lebanese University) is scared to go back to university following the positive Covid-19 cases among university students. 
That being the case, the next academic year looks blurry and so far, there are no clear solutions. The students and their parents are certainly the most impacted.