Syrian refugee children left behind as education moves online

A young Syrian at the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan, on September 18, 2015. (Photo: NYTimes)
AMMAN — “My children are not getting their right to education,” said Um Qais, a Syrian refugee and mother of six, four of whom are school students, all sharing one mobile phone to access the Ministry of Education’s online education platform.اضافة اعلان

“The children are missing out on years of education, while we sit here in the camps, unable to afford private tutors for them,” said Um Qais who has been living in the Zaatari refugee camp for the past eight years.

As schools shut their doors following the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, the government launched Darsak platform to continue the educational process online, but no efforts were made to guarantee access to the internet for children of poor or vulnerable families, nor for the Kingdom’s 127,000 camp population.

Some 134,000 out of a potential 233,000 school-aged Syrian refugee children are enrolled in formal education across Jordan, UNHCR spokesperson Lilly Carlisle told Jordan News in an email.

In Zaatari and Azraq camps alone, over 33,400 Syrian children were enrolled from KG2 to grade 12 in the academic year 2020-2021, according to UNICEF.

Syrian refugees interviewed by Jordan News cited scarcity of devices, bad internet connection, and high data prices as the key challenges facing their children’s access to education since the onset of the pandemic.

“We know that some school-going children are unable to participate in distance learning, either due to lack of access to technology or the inability of parents to support their learning,” said Tanya Chapuisat, a representative of UNICEF Jordan.

 “UNICEF is concerned about this vulnerable minority of school-going children in Jordan who are at the greatest risk of losing their education and dropping out. These segments will greatly benefit from the reopening of schools, as well as concerted efforts to catch up on their education,” Chapuisat added.

Um Qais, who dropped out of school after the ninth grade and cannot help much with her children’s education, says that she finds it hard to afford the price of mobile data sufficient for her four children aged between 5 and 13 to access their classes on Darsak.

She told Jordan News that “it has been frustrating trying to access the Ministry of Education’s online learning platform. It simply did not work for me, I would connect and then lose connection a minute later. The teachers did not provide me with much help either.”

These concerns are also shared by Salwa, a mother of six in Azraq refugee camp. Four of Salwa’s children are in school and they have not been able to attend classes on a daily basis.

“I have one phone for all,” Salwa said, describing how she divides the time so each of her children get some schooling time. In the morning, the first-grader, who “needs the most attention,” then in the afternoon the fourth-grader, and, if there is time or data left, then her older children can use it to follow their classes.

“While school closures affect all ages, there is a particular concern for children who began the 2019–2020 school year in the lower grades which is a critical time for learning literacy and numeracy — this is when we call the child in educational terms an ‘emergent reader’. Today, there is a huge risk that these children have lost a critical amount of learning, which could have very long-lasting consequences for the children, their communities and the country,” said Chapuisat.

“Ultimately, we believe that the safe reopening of schools will have the greatest impact on vulnerable children’s education, mental health, safety and wellbeing,” she added.

As the Kingdom was hit with the third COVID-19 wave and cases started to mount, the Jordan New Agency, Petra, reported that the Ministry of Education made the decision to close schools yet again, after only one month of partial reopening, and announced the return to distance education in all schools in the Kingdom for all levels of study till further notice.

“They did not tell us anything about what is going to happen,” Um Qais said.

“One day they just handed them [the children] the books and told them to go home,” she added.