Parents prefer online education to preserve children’s lives in northwestern Syria
Enab Baladi – Razam al-Sawadi
Recently, the education sector in northwest Syria has not been spared from the shelling and missiles of the Syrian regime forces and their allies, which have impacted the infrastructure and personnel including teachers and students, especially in areas close to frontlines.
The bombing of educational institutions seems systematic, with an increase in its pace, especially during school hours, leaving behind victims among students and teachers. Four schools have been targeted since the beginning of this year, and 30 during the year 2023.
Repeated targeting disrupts the educational process and compels parents to refrain from sending their children to schools for fear of shelling. Meanwhile, teachers continue to work despite difficult conditions, with no solutions in sight to guarantee the continuation of education.
Schools are targets
On the morning of December 21, 2023, the Martyrs of Afs school received news of the death of teacher Rania al-Muhaimid, who succumbed to her injuries from the artillery shelling that targeted the school in the town of Afs, east of Idlib.
Al-Muhaimid spent 19 days under medical care before her death, and she was mourned by the Teachers of North Syria and the Martyrs of Afs school on Facebook.
The killing of teacher Rania al-Muhaimid deeply affected Eyad Ahmad Zureiq, a third-grade teacher at the Martyrs of Afs school, as he described to Enab Baladi that the sight of her pens covered in her blood was unforgettable.
Zureiq said that seeing the classroom chalkboard, upon which the name of the school was written, filled with shrapnel from the bombing, is an enduring memory after the school was targeted.
The shelling poses a threat to the lives of teachers, on top of the difficult conditions they face, including low salaries, delayed payments, and the additional work that most of them perform.
According to Zureiq, what drives teachers to continue is their commitment to the teaching profession with all sincerity, considering it a humane profession in the first place.
“All of us are potential martyrs, and this only strengthens our determination to continue educating because their terrorism will not silence our pens, and we must not leave our children without education while we are the sons and daughters of a 13-year-old revolution,” he said.
He added that both teachers and students are afraid during the shelling, but the teacher must be stronger and resilient and must cast aside fear, as being the strongest link in the school.
Teachers’ roles become more significant amidst the shelling, with their educational and guiding presence occupying an important part of their role towards the students.
Abdul Latif Duro, the headmaster of al-Abzmo school in the western Aleppo countryside, told Enab Baladi that teachers must be patient to take the necessary steps, such as implementing an evacuation plan and distributing roles and tasks.
After the shelling, there are other tasks to reassure students and provide them with psychosocial support to improve their mental state.
Classrooms are empty
Due to the “terrible” experiences we have been through, it is natural for the number of students to decline, was Eyad Ahmad Zureiq’s response when asked about the impact of the shelling on student attendance.
Schools located in areas close to frontlines, such as Sarmin, Afs, al-Nayrab east of Idlib, and Darat Izza and al-Atarib in the western countryside of Aleppo, frequently suspend classes.
Parents refrain from sending their children to school after repeated bombings by the regime forces, which have resulted in casualties among students and teachers.
Hiba Mohammed (24 years old), an English teacher at one of Sarmin’s schools, told Enab Baladi that the school has noticed a significant drop in student numbers. Teachers are now required to repeat lessons multiple times and record them for absent students’ parents via WhatsApp. She noted that the number of students per class does not exceed eight, whereas it originally was over 20.
Mohammed added that one cannot blame parents for not sending their children, as the frequent shelling of schools has created extreme fear.
Mohammed Mismar, a supervisor at the Badr Haj Othman school in Sarmin, told Enab Baladi that the security situation in the town affects student numbers and contributes to their lack of focus due to their ongoing fear of bombing.
He mentioned that since the beginning of the year, the number of students at the school has never reached the registered capacity, there are always absences, and no measures can be taken against absent students.
He continued, explaining that school hours are always reduced, especially since the responsibility for dismissing students or suspending classes falls on the school’s supervisors. Therefore, they choose to send students home early and with every warning from bombing observation groups.
As a result of a bombing campaign that targeted Sarmin’s main market two weeks ago, Idlib’s Directorate of Education gave permission to the areas of Sarmin, al-Nayrab, and Afs to implement online education and suspend classes for only one week, according to a statement by the director of education and teaching, Ahmed al-Hassan, to Enab Baladi.
Al-Hassan said that the decision to temporarily suspend classes was the best solution to protect students and staff, and the missed classes would be compensated at the end of the school year.
He clarified that within the available resources, the directorate of education strives to maintain a connection between the student and the school, which is the primary goal, as distance learning achieves minimal educational benefit.
There is no plan to convert to full-time distance learning; rather, the decision was made as an emergency response to the escalation in those areas.
Leaning towards closure
In a vote conducted by activists in Sarmin via a WhatsApp group, including more than 300 people from the town’s residents, the majority voted in favor of closing schools and adopting distance learning.
Mohammed Qadhanoun (38 years old), a resident of Sarmin, believes that closing schools in the town for this year is the only solution, with the repeated deliberate shelling of schools and their surrounding areas by regime forces, especially at times when students are leaving.
Qadhanoun explained that he has refrained from sending his two children to school for about a month. Their mother focuses on teaching them through communication with their school teachers, noting that the issue of distance learning is no longer up for discussion but has become a reality for the children’s and teachers’ safety.
He added that houses are not targeted as directly as schools, and in the event of shelling, the head of the household has taken precautions. In contrast, sending children to school and having them spread out on the streets is risky.
Fatima Abdul Rahman, the mother of a fourth-grade student in a Sarmin school, openly supports distance learning but notes that it has negatively affected her daughter’s educational level due to the lack of good internet service and the reliance on software programs not specifically designed for distance education, like the WhatsApp application.
She pointed out that lessons are often just audio recordings and pictures, which are sometimes not downloaded or listened to by the student.
Every time she sends her daughter to school and hears the sound of bombing, she experiences extreme panic, which has caused her to develop high blood pressure and nerve spasms.
Abdul Rahman added that her family is forced to stay in the town because their financial situation does not allow them to move to another area.
Despite repeated bombings in Sarmin and surrounding towns, the Directorate of Education did not adopt decisions for partial holidays and suspension of classes; instead, it authorized school supervisors to make these decisions, as they are more familiar with the students’ and teachers’ conditions.
A suffering sector
The education sector in Idlib suffers in terms of infrastructure, services provided to students, and the levels of teachers’ salaries. They call for higher pay through repeated protests, but shelling continues despite ceasefire agreements.
In November of 2023, the director of education and teaching in Idlib, Ahmed al-Hassan, told Enab Baladi that schools in the area are experiencing a shortage of textbooks, with 500,000 students in need of books.
Al-Hassan attributed the shortage to the termination of memorandums of understanding with donor agencies that provided books in previous years, which ended in late 2022.
There are no official statistics on the actual number of students in schools in Idlib and its countryside, as schools were affected by bombings from the regime and Russia on the area, particularly during the escalation in October 2023.
The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) reported that the military escalation in the northwest regions of Syria has significantly affected access to education for 2.2 million school-age children.
Additionally, OCHA stated that there are 2.2 million school-age children living in northwest Syria, with at least one million out of school, pointing out that the situation is particularly dire in displaced persons camps.
On March 5, 2020, the Turkish president signed the Moscow agreement with his Russian counterpart, which announced a ceasefire effective from the 6th of that month along the frontline between the Syrian regime and the opposition.
This followed another agreement Russia and Turkey signed within the Astana process in 2017 for “de-escalation,” which was followed by the Sochi agreement in September 2018 that called for a ceasefire around Idlib, but the regime and Russia continue to violate these agreements regularly.
Enab Baladi’s correspondent in Idlib, Shams al-Din Matoun, contributed to this report.
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