Like students worldwide under COVID-19 lockdown, nine-year-old Rama receives her lessons online. In Northwestern Syria, she and her father, Fadi, use his smartphone to watch a virtual Arabic class on WhatsApp, supplemented by textbooks.
Despite her young age, she adjusts to the home-based education. Rama has experienced long-distance learning before. A 2019 airstrike threw Rama’s life into chaos: She was covered in rubble, wounded by shrapnel, and lost friends. In both the Syrian crisis and the COVID-19 pandemic, the Manahel project, part of the broader UK aid-funded Syria Education Programme, strives to provide education to students like Rama.
Education for the Marginalized
With funding from UK aid, Chemonics’ Manahel project provides access to safe, inclusive, and quality education for primary school-aged children (Grades 1 to 4). Since 2018, the project has benefited 380,517 students through school-, home-, and after-school-based education. Syrian girls, children with disabilities, the marginalized, and the displaced are among those most likely not to attend school. Manahel works to ensure that its programmatic and pedagogical approach responds to the academic, psychological, and safeguarding needs of the most vulnerable.
The project blends classroom lessons with remedial education, structured psychosocial support (PSS), and play-based activities. This approach nurtures children’s academic growth while building their resilience and helping them process their emotions. This aspect of the approach is important when educating children who have dealt with displacement forced by the conflict within Syria. The arrival of 2020 tested this approach’s durability and adaptability.
Children Within Two Crises
By 2020, Syrian families had already experienced nine years of war, forced displacement, poor essential services, and insufficient shelter. Increased conflict in Northwestern Syria between January and March forced many children out of school, compounding their traumas. One in three children stopped attending school, losing between eight and 12 weeks of lessons. As Rama’s family did, some 4 million people experienced protracted internal displacement.
The children of displaced communities are vulnerable to multiple long-term issues. These issues can manifest in the form of anxiety, depression, difficulty focusing, and psychosomatic symptoms. Violence and displacement also devastate local economic and public services, diminishing opportunities for families to earn money.
The emergence of COVID-19 created a “crisis within a crisis,” leaving communities to grapple with new dangers. Manahel responded rapidly. Within a week, the project adapted lesson plans designed for in-person learning to facilitate digital and remote learning. Fortunately, the framework necessary to accomplish this adaptation already existed.
Before the pandemic, during the conflict, Manahel facilitated remote lessons for children who could not safely attend school. As a result, Manahel-supported teachers already possessed the remote-learning methodology and had applied it.
To expedite distance learning, Manahel replicated school timetables in the new e-curriculum. The project encourages children to complete their lessons at home around the same time that they would if they were still in school. The new e-curriculum’s timetables provide normalcy and routine, both essential to wellbeing.
According to Fadi, Rama’s father, she is always excited to receive new lesson videos on the WhatsApp learning group. “It’s not the ideal case, like having a teacher stand in front of the class,” Fadi said. “But it’s still schooling and keeps children engaged and learning.”
“I love learning from home,” Rama said. “The teacher sends us videos, and then my friends and I think and answer the questions.”
From Saturday to Wednesday, school staff contact parents via WhatsApp, delivering live and recorded video tutorials, audio guides, and written content. These materials, complemented by teachers’ remote support, allow families to home-school their children. Parents submit their children’s work via the e-messaging platform, which enables teachers to remotely check on their students’ progress and provide feedback.
“The WhatsApp groups are busy,” said Patrick Mroz-Dawes, an education advisor with the Syria Education Programme. “Parents are individually contacting teachers. We’re learning from parents, not just them from us. It’s very positive. Parents are chasing teachers. They want more!”
Mental Health Allies
Beyond classwork, e-learning tools and communication channels open a window into children’s mental health. Manahel harnesses resources to remotely identify at-risk children and help them access the PSS services they need.
Mental health and psychosocial support (MHPSS) officers, like social workers, partner with teachers to aid students who exhibit stress or trauma. For example, students submit art exercises, which MHPSS officers can then analyze for visual indications of troubled mental health. In these cases, MHPSS officers contact parents to provide tailored support and connect children to child protection services.
MHPSS workers and teachers design exercises to keep students physically and mentally healthy. PSS facilitators (also known as “librarians”) have produced a variety of sports and storytelling videos.
Manahel also uses e-learning groups to unify teachers. The groups provide guidance on distance learning, share best practices, and provide a platform to address common challenges. In one session, 155 teachers collaboratively determined how best to use WhatsApp, Skype Calls, YouTube, and Live Broadcasts to promote learning.
Parents’ and Students’ Feedback
Manahel values the feedback of families and teachers. With face-to-face communication halted by social distancing measures, the Manahel team has strived to incorporate individual and community experiences. These reflections guide Manahel’s thinking, ensuring that those most vulnerable to exclusion are heard.
Manahel surveyed parent satisfaction within the first two weeks of distance learning and found 89 percent of parents reported high satisfaction and shared that activities were easy to implement and generated a positive reaction from their children.
By having children read passages aloud on video or electronically return completed math exercises, Manahel remotely conducted quarterly literacy and numeracy learning assessments. The test results revealed that children were making steady academic progress. At the beginning of the term, over half of Manahel-supported students could recognize letter names. Of the 2,872 children sampled, 42 percent of students are now able to read letters, words, and sentences with short vowels.
Ten-year-old Nada, also displaced by the crisis, offered her thoughts about distance learning via tablet: “I enjoy the stories shared by the librarian on the group. I like being at home more because I love to use the tablet, and I feel very safe being with mom.”
Ten-year-old Shams, a student born with paralysis on the left side of her body, said of the lessons, “I also like my teacher and our librarian. They help me to learn and succeed. … I’m very happy because I’m a top student in my class. … And I will be a librarian when I grow up.”
Health Essentials for the Displaced
Schools can provide a pathway to connect families with vital services. In the wake of COVID-19, Manahel recognized that without in-person schooling, many families’ access to these services would be limited. The project quickly pivoted to support public health priorities. With newly unlocked UK aid funds, the project is working to reduce the risk of infection in Northwestern Syria. Manahel distributes emergency soap, water, and hygiene supplies to meet students’ household needs.
Public health permitting, Manahel plans to create summer schools to help students catch up in their lessons. In January, displacement and violence delayed educational opportunities for children. When conflict forced schools to close, the project established “home-based schools,” where Manahel formed localized classrooms in neighborhood homes. Nonetheless, many children lost weeks of lessons during this period. COVID-19 exacerbated this dilemma.
Despite the uncertainties the Syrian crisis and the pandemic pose, students retain the capacity for hope and to envision a better future.
“I want to be an English teacher when I grow up,” Rama said. “I love the English language and teaching other children. I also want to return to my school and home, just like other children. And I hope not to see another military aircraft ever again.”