AMMAN: An announcement by the opposition Idlib Education Directorate cited “Russian bombardments” for the decision to temporarily close schools in the rebel-held province, a precautionary move set to impact “more than 70,000 students,” an opposition education official told Syria Direct Thursday.

“In light of the targeting of schools across Idlib by Russian planes, schools will be closed for one week,” read an announcement posted online by the Idlib Education Directorate on Wednesday.

Schools could remain closed for even longer “if the targeting continues,” the civilian body responsible for education in most of the northern, rebel-held province said in the announcement.

“This decision means that more than 70,000 students will stop going to school,” Jamal al-Shahoud, the Idlib Director of Education told Syria Direct on Thursday.

The decision was deemed necessary because “Russian planes are now targeting any gathering,” al-Shahoud said, citing intense bombardment in Idlib’s Jabal al-Zawiya, Maarat al-Numan and Khan Sheikhoun areas.

 A Maarat a-Numaan school after an alleged Russian airstrike Wednesday. Photo courtesy of AlMarra Today.

It is not immediately clear to what extent Russian airstrikes have impacted educational facilities in Idlib since Moscow ordered sorties in support of the Syrian regime in late September.

Russian bombings have hit six Idlib schools, pro-opposition news site Etihad reported Wednesday, citing estimates from the Directorate without clarifying over what time period the alleged bombings occurred.    

In all, 133 of the province’s schools are completely out of commission and 350 others are 60 percent damaged, Etihad reported.

This past September, a report by UNICEF found that one in four Syrian schools were unusable, either damaged or repurposed, leaving more than two million children out of school.

“Fear hangs over all the schools,” al-Shahoud said.

An array of rebel factions control Idlib province, mostly aligned with the Victory Army coalition that is dominated by Jabhat a-Nusra and Ahrar a-Sham, where airstrikes by both Syrian regime and Russian warplanes are a daily occurrence.

Also on Wednesday, an alleged Russian airstrike partially destroyed an elementary school in Maarat al-Numan, approximately 30km south of Idlib city. This past weekend, three civilians were killed by Russian airstrikes that hit a school and a fire department in Ariha, 10km south of the provincial capital. Two weeks before that, five children were among nine killed when Russian jets bombed a school in Jarjanaz, just east of Maarat al-Numan.

Airstrikes are a threat that Idlib educators say they can do little to avoid.

 An Idlib Education Directorate announcement closing schools for one week. Photo courtesy of Idlib Education Directorate.

When teachers in Idlib’s schools hear bombers approaching, “all they can do is pray and get the students inside,” al-Shahoud says. “We are looking for shelters, but unfortunately there aren’t enough.”

“We as teachers fear more for our students than ourselves, but we’re also afraid.”

Initially high attendance has dropped off since the beginning of the school year, the education director said, as the threat of airstrikes keep students home.

The students who still attend school often study in drafty, unheated classrooms. For Idlib educators and administrators, the struggle to provide heating and secure sufficient school supplies are extra hurdles to clear, even as a mixture of local and international organizations work to keep the schools afloat.

“We’ve only been able to heat a few schools,” al-Shahoud says, and that by using fuel and heaters provided by aid organizations and the Idlib Provincial Council. Some of the books used in Idlib schools come from the Syrian Education Commission, a Syrian nonprofit based in Turkey, and others from the Education Directorate.

The school closure decision follows measures taken by opposition education officials in neighboring Aleppo province, who told Syria Direct earlier this week that they would be moving west Aleppo schools underground in the wake of an alleged Russian bombing that killed at least eight schoolchildren on Monday.

In Aleppo city on Wednesday, another raid “by Russian planes” in the rebel-held al-Zabdiyah neighborhood that hit an elementary school “took the lives of three children and injured 20 others,” the Aleppo Civil Defense reported.

Russian forces targeted 20 educational institutions during the last four months of 2015, according to a report by the Syrian Network for Human Rights monitoring group released one week ago.