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UNESCO tackles physical, psychological and systemic educational challenges

School rehabilitation efforts post Beirut blast

by Mona Betour el-Zoghbi

UNESCO began coordinating school rehabilitation efforts after the massive port explosion in Beirut on August 4th. The Ministry of Education and Higher Education (MEHE) has requested UNESCO to lead a wide international effort to coordinate the rehabilitation of public and private schools in the Beirut governorate. In this role, UNESCO will be coordinating partnerships, finance, implementation, monitoring, and reporting in relation to the rehabilitation of the damaged schools. On
August 27, 2020, UNESCO launched an international fundraising appeal, ‘LiBeirut’, to accelerate international response for the rehabilitation of
schools, historic heritage buildings, museums, galleries and the creative economy.

Putting education, culture and heritage at the heart of reconstruction efforts is paramount because the explosion resulted in diminishing or eliminating access to education for over 85,000 children and youth. According to the latest available reports from MEHE, at least 199 schools (90 public, 109 private), 5 technical and vocational compounds, including 20 buildings, as well as 32 higher education facilities in Beirut and surrounding areas have been damaged or destroyed.

The severe wreckage of these academic institutions in Beirut and neighboring areas has therefore affected thousands of learners who are unable to access and learn in a safe and healthy environment. This makes rehabilitation, reconstruction, the provision of distance learning, as well as psycho-social support, priorities in an education system that was already facing significant challenges.

These challenges are posed mainly by the country’s financial and economic collapse, which makes it more difficult for parents to cover their children’s education costs and needs; the political and security crisis which have caused multiple school-closures throughout this academic year; as well as the COVID-19 pandemic which has impacted the accessibility to school, disrupted the learning process, and added the sudden complexity of distance and online learning.

The MEHE Beirut Blast Committee

The Ministry of Education and Higher Education formed the MEHE Beirut Blast Committee with the aim of following-up on the school rehabilitation
process, mechanisms, and outcomes. Rapid and thorough assessments of the damaged facilities have been conducted and coordinated by multiple partners, including MEHE, UNICEF, and UN-Habitat. Overall, the response priorities identified by MEHE include the complete assessment of rehabilitation and equipment needed for schools (public, private, Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVET) institutes), as well as the
provision of solutions to accessing remote learning, mainly in terms of devices and connectivity.

In order to ensure safe learning environments that are conducive to quality learning for all, the schools’ rehabilitation and refurbishing will be based on MEHE’s Effective School Profile (ESP) framework, including the guidelines on Water Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH), which address safe
drinking water, proper plumbing infrastructure, toilets and latrines, etc.) and accommodating children with physical and mental/learning disabilities.

As per initial assessments and estimates by the UN and MEHE, around $42 million are required to respond to the rehabilitation needs of public and private schools, universities, and public TVET facilities for rehabilitating and reconstructing the damaged buildings. Around $22 million are also
required to ensure access and connectivity to remote learning for students and teachers affected by the Beirut blasts.

As of early October 2020, funds have been committed by diverse partners including UNESCO, UNICEF, Education Cannot Wait, the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation, Education Above All, and others. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) also launched a Flash Appeal for immediate humanitarian response, including for the support of rehabilitation and education facilities under the Beirut Blast Response.

Long term implications and damage

In addition to coordinating UN efforts to support education in Beirut, UNESCO will also directly support the rehabilitation of schools, thereby supporting at least 30,000 students to access safe learning environments, with funds it has already raised through the international initiative, Education Cannot Wait (ECW) over an 8-month period running between October 2020 and June 2021.

It is important to realize that the negative impact on education goes beyond the physical damages of structures, equipment, and furniture, but encompasses a complex web of long-term implications, including post-traumatic effects on learners, increased risk of school dropout, and increased vulnerability of marginalized children including those living in poor households which can no longer afford to cover school fees or even the remote learning devices, not to mention those who are refugees, and those who have special needs or learning difficulties

Children and youth who have been affected by the Beirut explosions may have suffered physical losses, including accessibility tools (electricity and
internet connection) and electronic devices, which may hamper their access to and participation in education in the academic year 2020-2021, which may largely be online due to Covid-19 precautions.

Accordingly, and in addition to the immediate physical rehabilitation and refurbishing of the schools, UNESCO is also supporting the distance learning and psycho-social support (PSS) systems, especially as MEHE has announced blended learning (combination of in-school and on-line) in Fall 2020. For example, UNESCO will develop and distribute distance learning toolkits to teachers and students, secure tablets to vulnerable teachers who cannot afford them along with user-guidance manuals, and train educators and teachers in distance learning methods and tools, especially on-line teaching.

In addition, UNESCO, with financial support from the King Salman Humanitarian Aid and Relief Center (KSRelief), has developed a programme called “Endi Kodra”, which means “I have capacity”, targeting more than 300 elementary school children and their parents, who were exposed and affected by the Beirut explosion. The objective of this programme, which started in October and is on-going for at least the next 3 months, is to support these children and parents in coping with, and recovering from the traumatic experience and learning to deal with the stress, anxiety and fear.

UNESCO is also planning on developing training programmes and toolkits that target teachers in particular, in order to build their competences in providing psycho- social and emotional support to the students affected by the explosion and who may suffer from post-traumatic impacts.

Ultimately, education remains an essential dimension for the reconstruction of the social, economic and political fabric of Lebanon. Rehabilitating the academic institutions and improving the overall learning environment is one of the basic conditions for the rightful access to education, fighting for a
brighter future for the generations to come.

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Mona Betour el-Zoghbi

Mona Betour el-Zoghbi is a consultant working with the Education Programme at UNESCO Beirut Office.

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