Fears over Palestinian children left behind by coronavirus school closures

Palestinian students, wearing protective face masks, gather in the courtyard on the first day of school in the village of Salem east of Nablus (AFP)

Olivia Cuthbert

The National  /  September 18, 2020

Poverty and lack of access to digital devices keeps many pupils in East Jerusalem from learning online, says the Faisal Husseini Foundation, which is raising funds to bridge the gap.

Lamar Nimer does not like wearing her mask to school. It hurts and the strings tug at her hearing device. Since many of her fellow pupils were sent home to wait out the pandemic, the corridors at her school in East Jerusalem have seemed empty and quiet. “It’s not normal, and I miss the others,” the 14-year-old says.

Lamar is among a handful of children in assisted learning at The Jerusalem Princess Basma Centre that need to attend physical lessons, but she is afraid and has come to hate all mention of Covid-19.

Like every other schoolchild in East Jerusalem, and worldwide, the pandemic has changed her life and she does not know what to expect next.

The Israeli government was one of the first to reopen schools when the coronavirus seemed to subside in May but case numbers quickly rose, with some of the worst outbreaks reported in schools, forcing many to close again.

By now, most East Jerusalem pupils have spent more than three months out of the classroom and concern is mounting that the impact will be irreversible. With poverty levels soaring in this part of the city and the economy ravaged by Covid-19, there are fears some will seek work instead of staying in school.

“The risk is high that we will reach a moment where there’s a big gap between children that can manage with remote learning…and other students who will be kept behind,” says Abdel Qader Husseini, chairman of the Faisal Husseini Foundation.

The organisation works with 146 schools in East Jerusalem, including the Princess Basma Centre, and says at least 12 per cent of pupils have dropped off the radar, with teachers unable to establish contact since schools were closed. Another 15 per cent are not engaging properly in online classes, attending some and missing others, a study conducted by the foundation found.

Meanwhile, schools are struggling to secure the resources required for online learning programmes. Many children and teachers lack access to devices and internet connectivity is in short supply. “The economic situation is bad and people are suffering more than ever,” Mr Husseini added.

In response, the foundation has launched a fundraising campaign encouraging donors to “buy time for Jerusalem schools” with the aim of raising an initial $5 million (Dh18m) by the end of October to purchase 6,655 laptops for pupils and staff. The idea is to allow more time for these children as they confront new challenges in an environment that is already beset by difficulties.

“We want our children to become decision makers, to have good futures and to stay in the city,” Mr Husseini says.

For Lamar’s classmate Shifa Razem, having a hearing disability pushes her to focus even harder on lessons. Sometimes, she struggles to catch the words during e-learning sessions and worries that her education will be affected.

“It’s very important for me to learn so I have an opportunity to find work afterwards,” the 14-year-old says.

Online classes have proved a challenge for others too. Those pupils that can gain access to devices at the required times – around 50 per cent, according to head teacher Bassma Kirresh – find that lessons do not always run smoothly. “The teachers are facing problems, some of the students sleep on zoom, or they close the camera. Some start singing … it is very difficult,” she says.

The school is trying to purchase an e-learning programme that is easier for parents and children to use remotely, but funds have dried up since many stopped paying fees. The surrounding area, the Mount of Olives, is a place of Christian pilgrimage so most people work in tourism, selling postcards or driving vehicles, but the pandemic has destroyed their livelihoods.

Many pupils have become despondent and unmotivated. When they did return briefly at the end of last month, Ms Kirresh was shocked at the lack of smiles on once-happy faces. “They are afraid and they don’t know how to deal with it,” she says.

“Palestinian children have the ability to go on with all the difficulties and the dangers, the occupation, the checkpoints… but with corona this is something that affects them not only physically but psychologically.”

Lamar has asked her teacher to avoid discussing the disease. “All the time I am reading and hearing on TV about it, I don’t want to hear about it in class anymore,” she says.

More money will need to be found when students do go back to lessons. Most of the schools in East Jerusalem are based in converted apartment buildings and other structures that fail to meet social distancing requirements. Classes, which average about 30 pupils, will need to be reduced to a maximum of 18 to align with Covid-19 regulations, and more teachers hired to accommodate the change.

The Faisal Husseini Foundation estimates that about $14.5m is needed to develop the infrastructure at schools and provide computers to pupils who cannot access education in the meantime. “If you give them a computer, you guarantee that this child will not be left behind,” Mr Husseini says.

Olivia Cuthbert – Journalist, Abu Dhabi