AMMAN — Until recently, northwest Syria has been targeted by an incessant bombing campaign by pro-government and Russian forces. The last round of escalation had forced over a million civilians in the area out of their homes.

To mitigate some of these effects on children, makeshift tents were constructed to serve as schools until the recent outbreak of the novel coronavirus pandemic added another layer of complexity to an already catastrophic situation. On March 14, local authorities closed schools and educational institutions in northwest Syria because of the virus, forcing schools and teachers to present lessons to students in new innovative ways. 

On March 29, the opposition-affiliated Syrian Interim Government (SIG)’s Ministry of Education issued a statement approving online learning initiatives. Educational institution leaders and teachers have shifted their classes to digital platforms to fill the education gap and aid the development of the nearly one million school-age children in the area. 

In Atmeh camp near the Turkish border, for example, Ahmad Hadaja, a 21-year-old medic and volunteer Arabic teacher, teamed up with five other teachers to create a WhatsApp group Arabic class for first to fourth-grade students. He records and texts brief video lessons and homework assignments to parents’ phones for children to follow. 

Unlike school attendance, the virtual lessons are not mandatory since many students lack access to the internet, computers, and mobile phones, according to Saad Baroud, director of partnerships at Bonyan, a non-profit organization that has been experimenting with alternative educational initiatives to support children’s schooling in northwest Syria. Over the last several months, many schools were suspended because of the bombardment and constant displacement.

During this time, Bonyan began experimenting by creating alternative platforms and opportunities for children in northwest Syria to continue their education. They began by pre-recording classroom lessons and sharing them in WhatsApp classroom groups but noticed the students were not interacting or engaging with courses like in a school environment.

The initiatives do present a substitute to classrooms but are not without their challenges, Baroud told Syria Direct

A teacher records an online lesson for his students in Idlib, 3/29/2020 (courtesy of Bonyan)

“Pre-recorded lessons on WhatsApp are the most popular form of alternative learning but it requires a level of commitment from the students and parental assistance at times to explain the material well enough for children to grasp the concepts. However, that level of support is mostly absent either because of illiteracy or even because of the poor psychological status of parents,” Baroud said. 

When the situation worsened with the COVID-19 outbreak,“we found an opportunity to move the initiative forward so we added virtual attendance to the lessons to help students interact with each other and with the teacher” Baroud said. Further, Bonyan added a counseling option to offer psychological and moral support sessions and tutoring. 

Digital lesson in progress, 3/29/2020 (courtesy of Bonyan)

“Engagement has increased drastically. This is a pilot phase and we’re working with different grants to expand this project,” he said. Bonyan employs up to a thousand teachers and provides classes to 800 students but is working to increase reach to 8,000 students. 

Other initiatives supported by aid organizations such as Save the Children provide a similar model to fill the gap in students' education created by the civil war and recent outbreak. 

“We try as much as we can. We don’t have the resources that are available to other countries to help ourselves and do what we can with our hands,” Abbas, a resident of Idlib whose nephew is a digital school student, said in an interview with Save the Children. 

Digital school alternatives require students and families to have devices with a fast internet connection but many families can't afford to provide such things to their children in light of stringent living conditions. Bombing and shelling have forced millions of people to move in an attempt to find safety in northwest Syria and 80% of people live below the poverty line, according to UNICEF. 

“Everything we get is on the phone but we’d prefer to be at school,” Abbas’s nephew, Kareem, said. 

Karma, a 9-year old girl in Idlib, echoed similar sentiments in an interview with Save the Children. 

“The teachers are giving us lessons on the phones and I hope it can end soon so we can go back to school,” she said.