'Today the situation is better': Cautious optimism as schools in Syria's Idlib prepare for new academic year

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Preparations for the new school year are underway in the Idlib governorate in northwest Syria. Highly motivated teaching staff are consolidating their plans for the year ahead and finding ways to prepare for possible obstacles which may arise.

The most significant of these is the rising number of schools in the camps of the extremely densely populated northwest region. These are in desperate need of similar investment to that given to the schools in towns and villages.

Education in northwest Syria has faced many obstacles in the last year, at the forefront of which was the spread of coronavirus which forced face-to-face classes to shift online and caused many problems for both students and teachers. Likewise, funding cuts were a continuous issue, forcing some staff to work voluntarily throughout the school year.

"Our biggest worry is the security situation, especially in the schools near to conflict points. Next is the lack of support some schools are facing for the second year running"

An increase in supported schools

In the countryside, west of Aleppo, an area outside Syrian regime control, the Directorate of Education is energetically preparing for the start of the new school year. The head of its media office, Yasin Juma says to Al-Araby Al-Jadeed, The New Arab’s Arabic-language sister publication: “We are working hard with our educational partners and civil society organisations. Our biggest worry is the security situation, especially in the schools near conflict points. Next is the lack of support some schools are facing for the second year running."

Regarding solutions to the funding issues, Juma responds: “We are hoping for a better year due to more schools receiving support. We will also be relying on the Education Directorate and civil society institutions to come up with solutions to confront the lack of funding, as well as providing support for teachers.”

The coronavirus pandemic has clearly affected education. However, how it is dealt with will be different this year, according to Juma.

A displaced Syrian woman washes clothes in a primary school turned into a makeshift refugee shelter in Idlib, Syria [Burak Kara/Getty Image]

“The effect of the virus will be reduced because of the increased awareness among teachers and students as well as the preventative measures we have adopted and the alternative plans prepared. The school days will continue to be split into morning and afternoon sessions in the bigger schools, and only one session will be given in smaller schools. We will strive to build new models of schools in the camps and to integrate others which were previously set up.”

Local-Qatari efforts

In the Idlib governorate, the last academic year was one of the worst after military operations destroyed or severely damaged more than half of its schools, affecting the education of more than 300,000 pupils, according to the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF). On top of this was the spread of coronavirus, as well as a lack of basic necessities like electricity, and internet shortages that prevented pupils from following online classes.  

As for the coming academic year, Muhammed Al-Naji, member of the educational complex in Ariha, says that more comprehensive preparation is underway: “New schools have devised ways to respond to specific educational needs using the capabilities at our disposal.

"Educational initiatives play a prominent role in keeping education going in northwest Syria. These initiatives provide essential support for the work of the Ministry of Education and contribute to persuading many students who had dropped out to return to the classroom"

"They’ve set up a standard model for student registration for the schools and raised the need for textbooks with the Qatar Charity which has pledged to provide schools with these on a yearly basis. A work plan for the coming year was made for secondary and primary education, and requests for teaching staff transfers were also considered; teaching vacancies were identified and filled where possible.”

One in three children out of school

Al-Naji believes that one of the most serious barriers to education is the cramped size of the schools. Another major issue is that many teachers are volunteers because of the limited funding. These are two of the factors prohibiting more than 130,000 students from getting an education.

“With this in mind, we really hope that the support and funding this year will be more than before (although there is little sign of that). As for the ongoing pandemic, we will handle it like last year: by taking necessary precautions when teaching face to face.

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"If necessary, some schools may shift to online teaching. However, that said, there aren’t enough school places or basic necessities, in particular fuel, although the situation in the schools receiving support is better.”

Al-Naji is desperate for international and humanitarian organisations to support this attempt at providing formal education in the region and give its projects the investment needed. This is necessary, he says, to prevent the inevitable negative consequences if the situation remains as it is, with thousands of children left out of any educational system, and the failure to offer a decent standard of education.

Executive Director of UNICEF, Henrietta Fore, said in a speech on the situation of children in Syria to the UN Security Council in February 2020: “The war in Syria has cruelly snatched the chance of education from 280,000 children in the north-west… schools are out of operation – destroyed, damaged or being used for shelters... Three out of 10 schools are non-functional due to the war, which has led to one in three children being out of school.”

Taking the initiative

Despite this, Mohamed Amar, who leads the educational team of the Masarat’ Initiative, is optimistic about the new academic year, though he emphasises that the coming year will call for hard work, as many students who had stopped coming to school are returning, and showing an increased interest in learning.

“Educational initiatives play a prominent role in keeping education going in northwest Syria. These initiatives provide essential support for the work of the Ministry of Education and contribute to persuading many students who had dropped out to return to the classroom. These initiatives started in recent years in northern Syria and rely on volunteers: our teachers make huge efforts to make up what students have missed from the curriculum, in addition to helping them consolidate their knowledge in the subjects covered.”

As for the daily difficulties faced by Masarat, Amar says that internet shortages are a problem as students can’t follow the live online classes. Some of them don’t own mobile phones or any smart devices.

“On the other hand, coronavirus did not affect the initiative as it is based on remote teaching. We look forward to the results of efforts to develop public education, and ensure fair treatment of teachers because at the end of the day they are the backbone of any educational system.”

The situation is improving

Amna lives with her four children in one of the camps in northwest Syria, where they settled after being forcibly displaced from their home in Homs countryside.

“Three of my children are registered in schools and I hope that they will be able to pursue their education and go to university after I didn’t get the chance to after finishing secondary school. I am hopeful even though we are living in difficult conditions – my eldest daughter was still going to school in Homs during air raids and shelling. Today the situation is better, and I hope my children will have a relaxed year of study free from fear.”

According to a report issued by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UN OCHA) in March 2020, 40 percent of all the schools in Syria had been either destroyed or damaged, and a quarter of those killed in Syrian regime and Russian attacks on Idlib were children. This was prior to 5 March 2019, the date a ceasefire was agreed in the province.

One in three children in Idlib governorate are out of school [Anadolu Agency via Getty Images]


Now, as Russian forces are escalating military operations and using Russian Krasnopol guided shells to target civilians in areas of northwest Syria, and perpetrating a number of massacres, many are increasingly worried that Russia and the Syrian regime will target schools in the region, endangering the lives of children and the international community will be accountable for not stepping in as happened during the decade which passed since the revolution.

This is an edited translation from our Arabic edition. To read the original article click here.

Translated by Rose Chacko