On 28 February, Lebanon confirmed its fourth case of COVID-19, closing all schools with immediate effect on the same day. Fadi Yarak, the Director General of Education in the Lebanese Ministry of Education and Higher Education (MEHE), shares some lessons from over a decade of leading a school system through difficult times.
COVID-19 is the latest in a series of shocks that have defined the last ten years in Lebanon, including the education system. Our public-school population has more than doubled as hundreds of thousands of Syrian families have sought refuge in Lebanon since 2011. Since October 2019, we have been dealing with the impact of an economic crisis that threatens to put more than half the population below the poverty line, And now, along with the rest of the world, we are navigating our way through the impact of the pandemic on our schools, students, and teachers.
At one level, closing schools is simple. But instructing everyone to stay at home is just the start of a fast and unpredictable period of planning and decision making. These are our five rules for winning ugly during a complex emergency:
1. Take time to understand people’s incentives
Many people have a personal stake in education in Lebanon. With a median age of 30, about 25% of the population is currently enrolled in some kind of learning which the pandemic has disrupted. But education is also a significant part of the economic mix. More than one in 10 members of the workforce is employed in the sector in some capacity.
Based on their interests, groups react quite differently to school closures. For students and their families, the concern is about missing out on learning and qualifications, and the desire for a clear pathway. For teachers, the focus is on whether they will continue to receive an income, especially for contractors who are only entitled to be paid for hours spent in school. Other groups are also important, from the institutions that run Lebanon’s large private education sector, to the international partners who help us support some of the most vulnerable children.
In the case of COVID-19, all these interests also need to be balanced against the public health priority. We were helped by the fact that school closures were in force globally, which allowed us to move the discussion on quickly to what we could do to mitigate the situation.
2. Make the most of what others can offer
Emergency planning is not the time to go it alone. Things move too quickly, and the task is too important and complex to turn down offers of advice and practical help. Creating and encouraging a broad coalition of support is critical to making progress.
One of our immediate priorities was to work out a way in which our students could keep learning. Here, we enlisted the help of multiple partners as we created a package of distance learning and support for students, which the Minister of Education was able to launch just two weeks after school closures began.
Different partners were able to help us in different ways. For example, we made use of UN-OCHA’s excellent storybook for children on COVID-19 within our materials aimed at supporting younger students’ wellbeing and mental health. At the other end of the spectrum, the UK government helped us broker a new agreement to give students access to cutting edge AI learning technology.
Meanwhile, the French government, UNESCO Beirut, and the Education Cannot Wait global partnership worked together to provide online learning materials and digital resources. And in the private sector, Microsoft gave us a million licences for MS Teams, allowing children across Lebanon to access the online teaching our staff have continued to deliver.
3. Take decisions at the right pace
One of the most difficult issues to tackle was how to manage the annual official exams at Grade 9 and Grade 12. These are of immense importance to students who had already faced considerable disruption to the academic year due to the financial crisis and its social and political impact.
Yet cancelling exams for 2020 was not a conclusion to be reached immediately. It was unclear at first how long closures would need to remain in place and whether such a decision would be necessary. We also needed to prioritise developing the distance learning offer. And it was important to work carefully through how we would manage qualifications, progression, and transition for these students in the event of a cancellation.
We still have other big decisions to take, including arrangements for transition from general to higher education, and from one cycle of the school system to the next. Here it’s important for us to make use of evidence emerging from early reviews of our distance learning arrangements. Understanding how much our students are learning is important to any decision about managing promotion between grades, including extra support next year.
4. Take time to safeguard your plans
Things move fast in a crisis, and the emphasis is on achieving the best possible outcome in an imperfect situation. Aligning incentives, working in coalition with partners, and taking decisions at the right speed are all highly important. But so too is ensuring that plans are legally compliant, and well communicated to people who need to understand them.
The Lebanese public service communicates formally through official circulars. Issuing instructions without also issuing the appropriate document raises the possibility of challenge and confusion. In March and April alone, we issued 10 circulars, on topics from requirements for school cleaning arrangements, to explaining the three pathways involved in the distance learning offer. More will be needed before the end of the year, for example on how students will be able to transition grades, since e-learning is not legally recognised as a form of education.
Good and regular public communication has also been critical. The Education Minister has given regular press conferences and made appearances on TV to update members of the public on plans and decisions. MEHE also has an active presence on Twitter and Facebook and has used this to keep communication channels open with students, their families, and the wider community.
5. Don’t let the urgent crowd out the important
The noise of a crisis can be overwhelming, with priorities competing for attention and fast decisions. But if managing the shutdown of a school system is complex, re-opening is considerably more so. With distance learning up and running with regular reviews, and the basic decision to cancel official exams taken, now is the time for us to plan for a range of more fundamental issues.
Our priority is finding ways to secure the best possible learning outcomes for students. We need to use data on distance learning as well as thinking through logistics and costs to devise a workable catch-up approach at the start of the new school year. And we need to work through how children will transition from one grade to another, balancing their readiness to do so with other issues like ensuring we avoid drop out.
Like every other country in the world, we have much to do to work out how we can re-open without raising public health risks. Many of our schools, both private and public, are not purpose built. Managing social distancing will be a challenge in some situations. We will also need to work hard to reassure parents that it is safe for their child to return to school.
More uniquely to our context, we must work through how to handle sustainability issues in the private sector, where the economic impact of COVID-19 is compounding an already difficult situation. Most Lebanese children have been privately educated for generations, for a variety of reasons. Many families are already struggling to pay tuition fees due to the financial crisis.
But if private schools don’t re-open, teachers will lose their livelihoods, and the resulting pressure on the relatively small public system could be immense. Lebanon has the highest refugee to citizen ratio in the world. Two in five children attending public schools are non-Lebanese, and in some communities, tensions over resources are already running high. So, charting the best possible course through this problem is important for reasons that stretch far beyond education.