The empty schools in Lebanon promise long-term damage from the crisis

BEIRUT (AP) – On a recent school day, Beirut’s Rene Mouawad High School was empty, its classrooms dark, just like all public schools in Lebanon for the past three months. His striking teachers were protesting not far away in front of the Ministry of Education.

About a hundred teachers joined the demonstration in front of the ministry, blocking traffic and holding up placards calling for pay rises. “We’re done with the charity,” said Nisreen Chahine, president of the Contract Teachers’ Union. “We no longer negotiate. You should either legally pay us or go home.”

The teachers gave speeches asking the officers to come out and talk to them. But as is usual at these regular protests, no one from the ministry showed up. After several hours, the teachers packed up and went home.

Lebanon’s schools are crumbling under the weight of the country’s economic collapse as political leadership – which has caused the crisis through decades of corruption and mismanagement — is reluctant to take any action to resolve it. Since the meltdown began in late 2019, more than three-quarters of Lebanon’s 6 million people have been plunged into poverty, their wealth evaporating while the currency’s value has shriveled and inflation has soared at one of the highest rates in the world.

Most of the country’s children have been out of school for months — many before teachers who say they can no longer live on their salaries went on strike in December. Lebanon was once known for producing a highly skilled, educated workforce. But now an entire generation lacks schooling, which has had a lasting impact on the country’s economic and future prospects.

The teachers called their strike because their salaries in Lebanese pounds have become too low to cover rent and other basic expenses. The pound has risen from 1,500 per dollar before the crisis to 100,000 per dollar now. Most teachers are now being paid the equivalent of about $1 an hour, even after multiple raises since 2019. Grocery stores and other companies now typically price their goods in dollars.

The teachers are demanding adjusted salaries, a transportation stipend and health benefits. The government only offered to cover part of the transport as they did not have the budget for more. Although schools partially reopened last week after some teachers returned to work, most chose to continue their strike.

Even before the crisis, Lebanon’s investment in public schools was limited. In 2020, government spending on education represented only 1.7% of Lebanese GDP. one of the lowest rates in the world according to the World Bank. The 2022 budget allocated 3.6 trillion Lebanese liras for education — equivalent to about $90 million at the time the budget was passed in October, less than half of the $182 million budget for education from a donor-funded one humanitarian program.

Instead, the government has relied on private and charity schools to educate children for years. Humanitarian organizations are paid to cover salaries and keep ailing infrastructure running. Two-thirds of Lebanese children once attended private schools, but hundreds of thousands have dropped out in recent years because private schools have had to increase tuition to meet rising costs. Schools, public and private, are struggling to keep lights on as fuel costs soar.

More than 700,000 children in Lebanon, including many Syrian refugees, were not going to school before the strike because of the economic crisis. According to UNICEF, another 500,000 people joined their ranks with the strike.

“This means we are now seeing children aged 10, 12, 14 and they are not even able to write their own names or even write simple sentences,” said Ettie Higgins, UNICEF Deputy Representative for Lebanon , to The Associated Press. UNICEF said last week it gave nearly $14 million to help more than 1,000 public schools pay staff.

Rana Ghalib, a mother of four, said it scared her to see her children at home when they should be at school. Her 14-year-old son had to repeat the 6th grade because he had fallen behind in previous disorders.

“The classrooms are basically empty because the teachers are demanding their rights, and they’re dark because there’s no gas,” Ghalib told the AP.

The international community has been pushing the Lebanese leadership to enact sweeping economic, financial and governance reforms in order to secure a $3 billion bailout from the International Monetary Fund and unlock development aid. The political elite that has ruled the country since 1990 has faltered – because, critics say, reforms would erode its hold on power and wealth. In the middle of a political impassethere hasn’t been a president for months and the government only functions in a limited executive capacity.

Education, meanwhile, is joining the banksmedicine and electricity in the ranks of Lebanon’s failing institutions. That could do long-term damage: Lebanon has traditionally relied on its educated and skilled diaspora population abroad to send remittances home to support families, invest and pump dollars into the banking system. The exodus of skilled workers skyrocketed during the economic crisis, leaving remittances as Lebanon’s last economic lifeline.

Hussein Cheaito, an economist and non-resident collaborator at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, a Washington-based think tank, says the crippled education system will further “deteriorate” Lebanon’s “social fabric” and deepen poverty.

“This will affect the longer-term growth of the economy,” he told the AP. “This means there will be less access to jobs in the future… (and) weakening the labor market in general.”

Ghalib, meanwhile, looks after her children, who watch TV and play on their cell phones while they would normally be studying. Even her 9-year-old daughter is aware that her future is in jeopardy, she said.

“My youngest daughter tells me, ‘I want to be a doctor, but how can I do that sitting at home?'” Ghalib said. “I don’t know what to tell her.”

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