The shut-down of schools during the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated inequalities and made it difficult for many students to access education worldwide. In Lebanon, this was especially compounded by severe economic downturn, rapidly rising fuel prices, and infrastructure issues, like the Beirut explosion of August 2020. Now, the gap between those able and unable to go to school is only widening, and more students are leaving schools to join the workforce or the marriage market out of necessity.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, many schools moved to a virtual classroom, even while families lacked the resources to adapt to this learning environment. Combined with the rising prices of fuel and the depreciation of the Lebanese Lira, families have had to prioritize other costs before education. The proportion of students enrolled in school in Lebanon dropped from 60 percent to 43 percent this year. In the 2021-2022 academic year, there were about 30,000 children in Lebanon that dropped out of school; a report by UNICEF found that one in ten children in Lebanon have been sent to work instead. Child marriage is another leading reason for dropping out, one fifth of Syrian girls in Lebanon between the ages of 15 and 19, and four percent of Lebanese girls in the same age bracket, are married (actual figures might be larger than official reports show). Most of the jobs taken on by previous students in Lebanon are low-paying, irregular, and informal—but, for many families, this employment is necessary to keep their families afloat during the economic crisis. One out of every ten children are employed instead of enrolled in school, and most of this labor is underpaid and informal.
Even when children do attend school, they are sometimes left sitting in classrooms without teachers due to the educators’ strikes. Two years ago, the average salary for an untenured public school teacher in Lebanon was US$1,600 per month, but with depreciation they now only make US$90. Paired with rising fuel prices, this salary is barely enough to cover transportation for many teachers, especially in rural areas where cars are especially important. In addition to pay, many educators are advocating for better health coverage and a transportation allowance to specifically address the problems they face. The instability of teaching is exacerbated by the rates of teachers on temporary contracts, as many teachers are considered temporary and can be fired without severance pay or social benefits. Even as the government moves to allow for travel expenses and examine salary scales, teachers have little hope that they will see changes and many are applying to other jobs or attempting to emigrate, further stressing the already tense education system.
In early February, the Ministry of Education held a meeting with politicians, ambassadors, academics, and international representatives to discuss solutions for the educational system, especially in light of the ongoing teacher strikes. In essence, the government has limited funding and capabilities to solve the ongoing educational issues. Education Minister Abbas Al-Halabi asked that teachers be patient with the government and called for cooperation for the sake of public school students.
Given the limited governmental resources, nonprofit organizations and NGOs in the region have played an important role in overcoming the educational gaps. For example, 26 Letters provides 1-on-1 classes in English with a curriculum that includes ethics, history, geography, and science. Some students go to 26 Letters after their school day is finished for supplemental courses and education. However, while these organizations play an instrumental role in educating students, they do not solve the fundamental issue of low rates of educational enrollment.
The economic situation in Lebanon has put extreme stress on the education system. Many children are choosing other paths outside of education, including employment and marriage. Teachers are overworked and underpaid, to the point that many are leaving the workforce. These issues are rooted in depreciation of the currency, rising fuel prices, and the overarching economic decline. The quality of education falls out of necessity when economic conditions take precedence. This leads to a vicious cycle of economic downturn and less investment in education. While governmental institutions may not be in a position to invest in the failing education system, nonprofit organizations and institutions continue to play a critical role in providing additional sources of education.