#EducationUnderAttack: Securing a meaningful return to school is about far more than just beating COVID-19Published: Sep 9, 2021 Reading time: 5 minutes
In September, children across the globe began returning to school after prolonged uncertainty and lockdowns. The past year has demonstrated the central role school plays, not just as a place of education but as a space to meet and to develop social skills.
"Children were asking us when were we going to resume our work again because they were feeling down without school or their own spaces. Once PIN was able to re-open them, the children were extremely happy,” says Anas, a PIN facilitator in a Child-friendly Space (CFS) in Syria.
Although distance education has enabled children to continue their education, it is not meant as a replacement for class-based education among peers. Syrian children welcomed the opportunity to learn via WhatsApp and stay in touch with their schoolmates, but they all wanted to meet their friends face to face and to do activities with teachers and educators.
Distance Learning: A short-term measure, but not a solution
While distance education approaches have filled some of the gaps, these are not without their own challenges.
Some argue that distance learning perpetuates education disparity between families; those who can pay for extra tutoring and those who cannot. Poverty also often means not having a dedicated learning space at home, reduced internet access and no computer or smartphone. Faza’a, a Maths teacher at a primary school in a Nineveh village, told us that one of the most challenging aspects of distance learning for his students was the lack of strong and stable internet and access to a smartphone device.
In response to these challenges, People in Need supported educators in Iraq and Syria with the tools and techniques they needed to implement the most successful distance learning curriculum possible. This included a series of training sessions on distance learning pedagogy for teachers, facilitation of internet access and the distribution of sim cards to vulnerable students in remote locations to ensure they could so they could continue their learning safely from home.
“The training helped us identify the simple ways in which lessons can be delivered to students if strong internet is available or not,” says Faza’a, a Maths teacher at a primary school in a Nineveh village.
While schools in Iraq will open their doors to children again on 9th October, schools supported by PIN in northwest Syria start on 18th September. PIN staff are prepared for further disruption of education should the context shift: “In all 37 PIN supported schools we will observe all appropriate protective measures at place. But at the same time we realize the situation can change very quickly. We are staying alert to shift back to the blended or completely distance methodology if the situation will require,” says Zsofia Pitcz, PIN´s Education and Protection Coordinator for Syria.
Returning to school is a must. But impossible for 75 million children
While the reopening of schools constitutes a real reason for jubilation, this must be tempered with the reality that COVID-19 was just one among many factors preventing continuity of education.
Today there are 75 million children aged between 3 and 18 years old living in more than 30 countries affected by crisis, such as Syria, DR Congo, Yemen, Ukraine, Niger or Colombia. A child's right to education cannot be safeguarded in conflict zones without education facilities themselves being protected. Between 2015 and 2019, there were more than 11,000 reported attacks on education infrastructures, harming more than 22,000 students and educators in at least 93 countries.
In Syria, 2.45 million children are out of school. Those who are in school often study in overcrowded classrooms situated in buildings with very limited water, sanitation, or electricity. This means the schools are dark and cold in winter while classrooms can reach 40 - 50 degrees celsius in the summer. These are the challenges before we figure in the frequency of direct military attacks on schools.
In 2020, there were 61 attacks on schools and other educational facilities in Syria. At the beginning of 2021, one out of every three schools had been destroyed or otherwise rendered unuseable through having been converted for military purposes.
School: A safe place to be?
Everywhere in the world, schools are supposed to be a safe place, where children can find protection and also hope for a better future. 9th September is the International Day for the Protection of Education from Attack. It is a day that belongs to all these children. It is a reminder of them.
PIN is one among countless local and international humanitarian organisations working to promote education access worldwide. In the last year, PIN supported access to education and through CFS more than 31,000 children in Syria. This support included the provision of teaching and learning materials, classroom furniture, textbooks, water, fuel for heating and emergency preparedness trainings for school staff.
Unfortunately, this is not enough. As children return to their classrooms across the world this autumn, we must remember that with or without a pandemic, schools will continue to fall under attack. Children will be denied their right to education until we demand accountability from all actors within these conflicts to respect the sanctity of schools and the importance of education.