Gaza children struggle with studies during COVID-19 lockdown

With high poverty, power cuts, and wonky internet service amid Israel’s blockade, students’ remote learning has been a nightmare.

Ismael Sulaiman, 38, teaches his children after following up with their teacher remotely through WhatsApp amid coronavirus school closures [Ashraf Abu Amra/Al Jazeera]

Gaza City – Walaa Jamal, 33, from the Shati refugee camp struggles to cover the educational gap for her four children amid school closures because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

She uses her old smartphone to connect them with their teachers remotely to receive daily instruction.

“Each child has a different educational level and needs to connect with her or his teacher at the same time, so I organise this by allocating time for each of them,” Walaa said.

Israel’s crippling 13-year blockade of Gaza has resulted in regular electricity shortages and internet disruption, compounding the education challenges.

On March 5, the Palestinian presidency declared a state of emergency, which included closing all educational institutions, as part of precautionary measures to prevent the spread of coronavirus.

At the beginning of September, the Gaza-based government decided to reopen the schools. However, the detection of COVID-19 in the community for the first time led to another shutdown. There was not enough time to distribute books to the pupils.

“Remote learning is exhausting as the mobile screen is too small, but there is no other option. The children don’t have books and they need to follow up their lessons or they will be uneducated,” said Walaa.

Three of her children are in primary school and the other is in kindergarten.

“When my children get homework from their teachers on WhatsApp they write it on paper, I take photos for the answer and then I send to the teacher over WhatsApp to get their evaluation and feedback,” she added.

Electricity outages

Walaa’s husband is a tailor in the Shati camp, but he cannot afford a laptop or additional devices as he lives on a limited daily wage that does not exceed $6 because of the Israeli restrictions and dire economic situation in Gaza.

According to the Palestinian Centre for Bureau Statistics, 29 percent of families in Gaza have only one laptop in their household.

In addition, statistics show 73 percent of Palestinian families in the Gaza Strip have basic internet service in their house, while 78 percent households possess at least one smartphone.

“I have had this mobile phone for four years and now it is processing very slow, and with eight hours of electricity outages we can’t get it charged fully for the mornings,” Walaa said.

Poor internet connections are an additional obstacle. Um Mohammed Abu Amra, 27, from the Deir Al-Balah area of the Gaza Strip, told Al Jazeera she needs to connect to the internet on her phone so her five children can continue their studies, but the internet service is extremely poor in her area.

“Sometimes I lost electricity and I can’t connect to the internet from home, so I buy an internet card for 1 Shekel [$0.3] to connect for one or two hours on public access points that are available in the area,” she said.

“On other days, if I have electricity, a technical problem at the internet provider can prevent my children from accessing their classes. This is tiring.”

‘Under heavy pressure’

Israel still bans 3G data service in Gaza, which would make life easier for pupils and their parents to follow lessons and send homework to teachers.

“School starts in our house early in the morning, this is a heavy load added on my shoulders. I need to cook, to teach the children, and to take care of my two-month-year-old child,” Um Mohamed lamented.

According to the Ministry of Health, Gaza has recorded 4,440 COVID-19 cases, including 26 fatalities, since March. Current active cases stand at 1,762.

Some neighbourhoods in Gaza are closed and guarded by police officers because of coronavirus outbreaks there.

“The remote learning was essential to provide the minimum level of education to the students during the lockdown, and the ministry of education is still discussing the return of children to their schools,” Salameh Maarouf, director of the Gaza-based government’s media office, told Al Jazeera.

Bahaa Elian,16, attends class remotely from his garden in Deir Al-Balah [Ashraf Abu Amra/Al Jazeera]

Maarouf said authorities decided to allow the return of high school students last week temporarily to provide them with textbooks and to assess the ability to restart classes.

“The Ministry of Education is under heavy pressure during this time that has forced it to record many lessons at all educational levels, and to open thousands of virtual classes through WhatsApp and Gmail to connect teachers with their pupils,” said Maarouf.

Students may attend part-time with the number of students in a class not exceeding 20, he said.

Amal Mohamed, 45, an Arabic teacher at the UNRWA school in Gaza City, bemoaned the learn-from-home process.

“Remote learning didn’t achieve its purpose for Gaza pupils due to limited abilities of their families. Only 10 out of 40 students attend my daily classes and follow up through WhatsApp,” Mohamed said.

“Some students delay submitting their homework as they don’t have internet or electricity, or because their parents don’t have proper mobiles. Others can’t follow the classes on a daily basis, while others don’t know what is the process at all.”

“Returning to schools is a challenge during the pandemic, but this is the only wise solution to bridge the knowledge gap with precautionary measures.”