Rich, poor; young, old(er); Arab, Jew: Students of all stripes across the Middle East have experienced a school year like no other. For almost a year, their learning has been disrupted by the novel coronavirus with on-again, off-again in-person classes and lessons on Zoom.
While the long-term effects of this disruption are still to be determined, experts fear irrevocable damage not just to pupils but to society as well.
Throughout the region, education stakeholders question the efficacy of online classes.
“I don’t feel like I’ve really been learning anything. … It’s very lonely. It’s also messy because nothing is really handled well and nothing feels serious. … The classes feel like they aren’t important,” Ashira Abramowitz, a Jerusalem student in her final year of high school, told The Media Line.
Yizhar Baumer, a father of three and a member of the Jerusalem Parents and Teachers Association, agrees.
“Video learning is really low quality. Nobody really knows how to adapt himself to the new world of video. The school material is really not [suited] to it. They need to revolutionize everything,” he told The Media Line. “It’s something that is being done just to say that we are still giving children education.
“The outcome, I think, will be students learning between 50% and 70% of what they would in a normal year,” Baumer added. “Kids are studying from bed, half-asleep.”
Abramowitz describes the sleepiness as something beyond normal fatigue.
“It is way more tiring than normal school. We are just in bed and at home all the time and it’s like there’s something that keeps you up and going about a routine and getting out and moving your body,” she said.
“When you’re not really moving, you just kind of get all sleepy and also it’s hard to focus because it’s just literally so boring. You’re staring at screen, which hurts your eyes after a few hours, and you are sitting for hours with nothing else to do,” Abramowitz said.
Elsewhere in the Middle East, education experts also question how much children are learning.
James Alexander, head of operations for Carfax Education UAE, a company that offers individual and group tutoring as well as educational consulting throughout Dubai and Abu Dhabi, said he sees problems among both younger and older students studying for exams.
“The education is incredibly disruptive for quite a lot of students across the UAE and extended throughout the Middle East as well, just because of the matter of fact way the schools are dealing with coronavirus cases: saying that schooling will be online if there are a few cases, then when the [number of] cases decline, they go back to school for a few days until there is another case and they switch back,” he told The Media Line.
“For students, that’s incredibly [disruptive], especially for younger ones that already find the online schooling quite difficult,” Alexander continued. “We are finding that more and more of the younger students are needing help because these are the years they learn the foundation skills and right now, with this constant back and forth, and with online school not being effective.”
“You can imagine having an 8-year-old in front of a computer for a few hours a day; it’s just not going to work in terms of teaching them times tables,” he said.
This will be particularly problematic, he explained, as the students advance, for the curriculum is built upon skills taught in prior grades.
“Schooling is very linear. … Students learn similar content every year, they move on by passing tests onto the next year,” Alexander said. “But now, if children’s education is being disrupted and that line starts to wobble, then moving onto the next year won’t be so simple. There will be little holes of education that children miss that there’s not really time to catch up on.”
Among older students, Alexander sees a lack of focus as a result of COVID’s unpredictable impacts on the calendar and not knowing whether all the material will be taught.
“A lot of students don’t have the enthusiasm they would normally have in studying for exams, because there is a lot of ‘will they/won’t they’ with the cancellations. A lot of students don’t have that drive to do their revision, because there is a chance that their exams will be called off,” he said.
“Their education is disrupted because teachers are struggling to cover all the content, so there is uncertainty as well that maybe they won’t be able to cover everything, and what happens if the schools are shut down,” Alexander said.
Clare Preston, director of studies at Carfax Education UAE, also sees disparate effects among different types of learners.
“The greatest problem we are seeing is the disparity in how pupils are responding to the online learning. For those who naturally are able to work independently, without supervision, and are more inclined toward visual learning, they are able to speed ahead of their peers,” she said.
“For children that are more kinesthetic or natural procrastinators, they are falling behind, leaving many families in a state of despair,” Preston told The Media Line. “In the classroom environment, learning is catered to all sorts of learning styles, and as much of a fantastic job as schools have been doing to make online learning interactive and versatile, it will always favor the learning style of some over others.”
Preston sees both advantages and disadvantages to online learning.
“Certain subjects are also at a disadvantage with online learning. Art, music, physical education and drama are taking a back seat this year,” she said, “On the other hand, self-discipline and being an autonomous learner is a vital skill many pupils are getting a crash course in that will serve [them well].”
The effect of this lack of schooling on their future professional prospects, and its impact on society, remains to be seen.
“Whether or not it will cause visible disruption to things like STEM [science, technology, engineering and mathematics] job markets or any specializations down the line is hard to say. But right now, what we can see is these holes forming, and how that will affect the job market later will be incredibly interesting to watch, in a negative way, because we will be able to see the effect of these [gaps] taking place,” Alexander said.
Preston agrees that the long-term effects are unknown, but believes that one possible impact could be less collaborative careers.
“I think longer-term consequences could be more young people opting for isolated office professions, working on their own or in front of a computer rather than as part of a team, public speaking, or working in a more physically active or artistic profession,” she said.
Preston also contends that the families will be more active participants in their child’s learning experience after the coronavirus.
“I also believe … parents will be more involved in their children’s education going forward,” she said.
Prof. Doron Gothelf, MD, director of the Child and Adolescent Psychiatry Unit at Sheba Medical Center-Tel Hashomer in Ramat Gan, near Tel Aviv, believes there will be intellectual deficits among students as a result of the disrupted school year.
“If you don’t study during this window [as a child], when you grow up, then it’s hard to compensate when you’re an adult because the brain is already mature. It’s already a year now. … I’m sure it’s going to affect their cognitive ability,” he told The Media Line, explaining that some of these cognitive aspects are “irreversible.”
Gothelf notes that Israeli children are spending less time receiving instruction this year than in normal times.
“For the patients I see, Zoom is terrible. Theoretically … it’s better than nothing, but many patients and children in general, I think, find it very hard to do long Zoom meetings,” he said.
Gothelf said that students with attention deficit disorder are having a difficult time.
“Some of them can’t learn at all in Zoom. … You have distractions from your family from your room, they go on chatting, texting, WhatsApping during the lesson, which they and their teachers cannot control,” he said.
Gothelf is also concerned that Zoom learning is leading to undiagnosed conditions in children going untreated, as the bond between teacher and pupil is weakened.
“When a child has a problem, he is depressed, anxious or starts having behavioral issues. Sometimes he asks for help; many times it’s the parents, and many times it’s the school and teacher,” he said. “Today, because the connections between the teacher and the students are very weak, many cases of adolescents with problems are overlooked because the teachers, who are a major source of referral, are not aware of them.”
Emma, an expat teacher in Kuwait who declined to give her last name because she did not seek permission from her school to speak to the press, said she misses the in-class experience.
“I definitely do not feel as connected to this class as I have to prior classes, because of online classes. There is something about reaching students in person that can’t be replicated over the internet,” she told The Media Line.”
“I also miss the support I give to and receive from fellow teachers around me,” Emma said.
Another trend in the region, like elsewhere across the globe, is that students from poor households are more vulnerable to the negative effects of school disruption.
In Israel, this especially manifests in those who are different from the majority population and poorer on average, like Arab Israelis and Ethiopian Jews.
“Minority groups in Israel have a difficult time accessing computers. ... Many of them are dropping out. There are nonprofit organizations that are trying to get old computers and tablets, but there is also another issue: a lot of the homes still don’t have interactive connection,” Baumer said.
Another challenge for poor Israelis, even ones who have access to internet, is having enough access to technology for all their children to be schooled.
“There are houses with one screen for three primary school students; it is a very big issue here,” Baumer said.
“The biggest concern is that they will drop out of school,” he said.
A spokesperson for the Education Ministry responded in a statement:
“The Education Ministry is aware of the difficulties that Israeli students face, and takes these difficulties seriously. In view of this, in the current school year the ministry has placed special emphasis on the emotional solutions and it has even allocated budgets in favor of this important issue. Also, against the backdrop of technology gaps, the ministry has purchased 150,000 laptops to give students who can’t afford them. Up to now, the ministry has distributed more than 130,000 computers,” the spokesperson said.
“The ministry continues to be attentive to the needs of the students in an effort to help and support them. The Committee for the Reduction of Gaps is currently working in the ministry, examining a number of aspects. Upon completion of its work, the ministry will present the information in an orderly manner to the education system and the general public,” the spokesperson continued.
Still, Israel is already seeing what Baumer calls “the silent dropouts,” pupils not attending video learning.
“You see now children in community gardens with other kids; some of them are abusing drugs and alcohol and expose themselves to dangerous stuff,” he said. “You see that police reports about drug and alcohol use among adolescents more than doubled, so it is a very big worry.”
Across the region, refugees are especially at risk of dropping out, because they lack access to necessary equipment and are less likely to be able to compensate for learning gaps accrued during this tumultuous period.
According to Lilly Carlisle, the spokesperson for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Jordan, only 57% of the 233,000 refugee children participate in formal schooling.
Carlisle explained that a UNHCR, UNICEF, and World Food Program May 2020 survey found that 20% of refugee households do not have the tools to go online.
“Very few refugee families have access to a computer or tablet at home, and instead [they] rely on smartphones,” she told The Media Line. “There is also often only one smartphone in the family, and so when there is more than one child having to access online schooling this has obviously affected the quality of learning available.
“As a result, at UNHCR we are definitely concerned about the impact of the pandemic on education, especially in terms of potential dropout rates as schools in Jordan start to go back to the classroom at the beginning of February, but also about the fact that those refugee children who haven’t had access to online learning will have lost months of education,” Carlisle added.
These consequences are already having society-wide impact.
“In Jordan, we are seeing an increase in child marriage and child labor,” Carlisle said.
The digital divide can also be felt in Lebanon.
Nour Moukaddem, a master’s student in mass communication at Beirut Arab University, has had a good experience with online classes but says that not everyone can afford the infrastructure needed.
“My online classes are more comfortable than live classes because I work and it is less time consuming to study at home and avoid the Beirut traffic,” she told The Media Line. “The material I’m studying lends itself well to on-call discussions, like we would normally have in-person.
“However, I had to increase the internet speed to be relaxed, and this option was not available to everyone because it was expensive,” Moukaddem added.
Another population especially vulnerable to the negative consequences of inconsistent schooling is children with pre-existing health conditions and their families.
Gaby Shine Markowitz, a parent and a disability advocate, said her 10-year-old with Down syndrome and other medical conditions has had a particularly difficult time transitioning back to Israel’s current third lockdown after the regulations had been previously relaxed.
“At some point when things were a little easier, we started having friends coming to play dates in the garden with social distancing and masks, and her aide and some of her … teachers would come and also work with her in the garden,” she told The Media Line.
“And volunteers from different organizations would come and play with her in the garden. When that got taken away again because of the lockdown or because of high infections, it was very hard for her to adjust back. … She kept saying: ‘I want them to come to the garden. I want them in the garden,’” Markowitz added.
The fact that the coronavirus vaccine cannot be used on children younger than 16 also poses a problem for her family, as her 10-year-old is ineligible for the shot.
“Even if my older kids get the vaccine and can get out there, they don’t know if they’re going to be bringing it [COVID-19] home, and that’s just as problematic for their … younger sister,” Markowitz said. “Everybody else may have a much easier time and they will still be in the same situation, which is very stressful.”
The age restrictions for the vaccine highlight a gap in how different children are impacted, with Sheba Medical Center’s Gothelf saying that adolescents are likely to be most hurt by the disruptions in schooling.
“For preschoolers and elementary school students, their parents and family can be a substitute in many ways, but adolescence is the age where peers are your whole world, and they suffer more from loneliness because of the isolation,” he told The Media Line. “They are the age group that would be more depressed; there are probably going to be more suicide cases [as a result].”
Fatma, an 18-year-old high school student in Amman who declined to give her last name, told The Media Line, “I’ve never felt like this before; I am sad all the time. I miss my old life.”
Gothelf is particularly concerned about the social impact of the disrupted school year on students.
“School is an important arena for socialization. There are all these children who are not stars in terms of their social life; many times during the summer vacation, they are kind of isolated, they do not receive phone calls from friends, and when the school begins, they reconnect,” he said.
“As we know from previous pandemics and from the literature on isolation, isolation is a major risk factor for depression, anxiety disorders and suicide,” Gothelf added. “Now these children, … the children with low self-esteem, the shy children, the introverted children, have been detached [from their peers] for a year.”
Children living in unstable households are particularly at risk.
“For some families, isolation’s had a good impact: They cook more; they do family meals together; they become more coherent. But for other families, you have more violence, and because everyone is now isolated, the domestic [abuse] cases are more easily overlooked,” Gothelf said.