Either on television as in Libya or on tablets in the IT-savvy Gulf monarchies, in the time of novel coronavirus millions of schoolchildren around the Arab world are now learning lessons at home. Governments across the region have shuttered schools forcing pupils to stay away in a bid to combat the virus, but at the risk of deepening an already worrying educational divide.
Across the region in many countries afflicted by poverty and patchy internet access, teachers, parents and pupils have been left scrambling not to lose the rest of the school year. Conflict-plagued countries such as Syria and Yemen face an even greater challenge, with infrastructure and modern telecommunications in tatters.
Over three million children in the Arab world were already deprived of schooling even before the coronavirus crisis, with more than 8,850 schools either damaged or destroyed in fighting in Syria, Iraq, Libya and Yemen. In Libya, despite its protracted war, the education ministry has struck a deal with local television stations to broadcast “compulsory” lessons for middle and secondary schoolchildren.
“It’s as if the pupil was in class with his colleagues and teacher,” said Education Minister Mohamad Amari Zayed. Mahdi al-Naami, a secondary school teacher in the Hay al-Andalous district of Tripoli, said: “Children must study at home and it’s the responsibility of the parents to make sure they do so.” As bank employee Salima Abdel Aziz pointed out, that particular responsibility falls mainly on mothers.
Not like school
In Jordan, where a 24-hour curfew has now been enforced on pain of immediate arrest, a sports channel has refashioned itself into an educational broadcaster. Schools in the kingdom are also using the popular WhatsApp multi-platform internet service to send out and receive homework and then return it marked with corrections.
According to 2018 figures, some 9.1 million of the kingdom’s 9.5 million people has internet access. But “this system will never be the same as lessons in school where pupils can ask questions and interact with their teachers,” said Saif Hindawi, a 40-year-old father of four girls.
Haneen Farouq, a college professor in Baghdad, said the authorities had instructed teachers to turn to electronic media after schools were closed as part of measures to curb the spread of the COVID-19 virus. Her private college has opted for the schoolwork app Google Classroom for its remote learning during the coronavirus lockdown. “Lessons are sent out each day in PDF format,” she said.
But she acknowledged after months of anti-government protests since October, that the virus was a further blow to her students. “They’re not motivated at all,” she said, ruefully admitting that “there’s a high chance we’ll just have to redo everything when schools and colleges reopen anyway”.
In the West Bank, now under lockdown by the Palestinian authorities, teachers in government schools are using the Zoom app to teach up to 100 students at once, with many using mobile phones.
But such interrupted schooling could have lingering effects. According to a report from the UN children’s agency UNICEF earlier this year — before the virus fully emerged — some 63 percent of children across the Middle East already could not read or understand a simple text by the age of 10.
TV remains main tool
The education ministry in Morocco, which has some eight million schoolchildren, this week started to operate a digital platform for lessons on the television and internet. Television, however, “remains the main tool of remote learning for families which don’t have computers even if they have internet access,” said a teacher at a rural school near the southern city of Marrakesh.
As for Egypt, the most populous Arab state, less than half of whom have access to the internet, the education ministry has said it will use television broadcasts but without giving a starting date. There are some 22 million schoolchildren in Egypt’s public school system, according to ministry figures.
Last week the education ministry opened a new website, with different lessons for all classes, but lack of internet access means millions will be barred from such online schooling. Closures in Algeria and Tunisia have coincided with springtime school holidays that have been extended without alternative schooling arrangements as yet announced.
But at the other end of the IT scale, schools and universities in gas-rich Qatar have ample access to virtual learning platforms. The United Arab Emirates, a country that prides itself as a new technology hub, says it can offer a free education to 50 million Arab schoolchildren with its digital teaching platform madrasa.org.