With the coronavirus declared a pandemic, Lebanon scrambled to limit the outbreak, which has caused at least three deaths and infected more than 60 people in the country.
Public spaces, including sports clubs, nightclubs, pubs, fairs, movie theatres and restaurants, were closed. Sports tournaments have been postponed and cultural events cancelled as a precaution against the virus.
Schools and universities suspended classes at the end of February, leaving teachers, administrators and hundreds of thousands of students at the mercy of online learning, much of which is unfamiliar and untested on such a scale.
“Teaching has become wholly virtual for all classes. Students get daily homework and assignments and everything is submitted online through a special application,” said Viviane Imad, whose two children attend the private American University-affiliated International College.
“Students attend virtual classes through Google classroom or Google hangout from 8 to 3 as if they were actually attending a normal school day. The teacher is virtually in front of them on the computer and the whole class is present, each student from his home. It is a 20-minute session backed up virtually with videos, notes and exercises,” Imad said.
Select private schools, such as the International College that are well-equipped with modern technology and devices allowing online teaching, have been able to cope with class disruption better than poorly equipped public schools.
“Our kids are privileged. I don’t how public schools, for instance, are coping. You need specific and proper applications for teaching online and these cost money to buy the licence. I am not sure that all schools can afford them,” Imad said.
Each school has devised its own online teaching schedule that suits its capacity and preparedness to adjust to unfamiliar teaching techniques.
While at the International College several hours of virtual classes are offered, the French-affiliated Grand Lycee Franco-Libanais has a daily 2-hour class only.
“We have video calls for the whole class with the teachers for two hours every day. It is not sufficient but acceptable because we get a lot of homework that we need to render within short deadlines,” says Lea Abdel Malek, 16, in tenth grade.
For Saeed Kadi, a student at the American Community School in Beirut who is preparing his International Baccalaureate, online teaching does not fully compensate for the class disruption.
“The content itself is good but we get through much content as we do in a normal school day since we have a reduced number of lessons. For example, we normally get four sessions of history a week but now we are getting only two sessions,” Kadi said.
“The problem is that nothing is mandatory. Some students do not submit any assignments. Teachers eventually reach out to the parents but there is no accountability as when you actually go to school. You need to attend every day and you cannot ignore your homework. Some students are surely going to fall behind,” Kadi added.
Public schools are requested to deal with the class disruption with whatever available resources and means they have.
“Obviously there are discrepancies in the capacities of (public and private) schools. Even in the public sector, some schools are more advantaged than others because their principals have been trained on the use of technology and have used it to communicate with parents and students, but they have done so by private initiatives,” said Albert Chamoun, media adviser at Lebanon’s Ministry of Education.
“Discrepancies also exist in the means and resources of students in public schools. In certain (underprivileged) areas students can’t afford access to the internet or don’t have the tools to access the internet but, in worst-case scenarios, the school administration is asking parents to collect photocopied lessons and homework for the students to work on during this phase.”
“Each school is operating according to its capacities, the available means and the facilities that the students have,” he added.
Online teaching is the best option in a situation of a pandemic virus spreading, for those who can afford it.
“It is amazing. Thanks for technology, otherwise it would have been a disaster for students,” said Imad, noting, however, that “online learning does not equal regular learning.”
“Some children can grasp easily while others, they need the help of the teacher, who is always available to communicate through e-mail but that is not always as effective as teaching one on one. Here the parents must help. Here comes the role of the parents,” Imad said.