In today’s highly volatile and ever-changing situation, we face a dire emergency with challenges posed by the Covid-19 pandemic. This health crisis has created complex dynamics that are far greater for any single organization to solve alone. Around the world, reopening schools with a safe learning environment for children remains one of the most daunting challenges for restarting national economies.
The largest obstacle we face in distance learning in Palestine is the weak connectivity in addition to the availability and access to the equipment required to implement such a strategy. It would require the cooperation of every active stakeholder. Therefore, the Palestinian Ministry of Education has convened with the Education Sector Working Group (ESWG) an online meeting on the 22nd of July, together with the Deputy Chair of Ireland and UNESCO as Technical Advisor.
The ESWG meeting is the highest forum for policy dialogue among all education partners contributing to executive decisions based on input and shared understanding of key issues. It was an opportunity to discuss the school re-opening plan of the Ministry as well as the progress on Higher Education in addition to presenting the Global Education Monitoring Report 2020 of UNESCO with the title “Inclusion and Education: All means All”.
Jonathan Conlon, Deputy Chair of the ESWG and Representative of Ireland, opened the meeting by highlighting that the Educational Working Group will not only serve as principal of the forum for policy exchange and discussions but will ensure a shared understanding of key issues in the education sector, like the coordination of needs, budgets and actions. It is exactly the type of coordination which Dr. Basri Saleh, Deputy Minister from the Ministry of Education, has hoped to stress when updating the participants on the most recent developments and the future needs of the ministry. While the final school reopening plan is still in development, an important pillar of strength and continuity will be a reliance upon a united dialogue and sharing of ideas from all of the local and international partners. This reflected the ongoing efforts of partners like UNESCO, UNICEF and UNRWA who are cooperating to support the Ministry of Education in responding to the upcoming challenges and needs while assisting in formulating corresponding interventions.
In all those efforts there is one group which plays a pivotal role in the provision of quality education, both online and offline: the teachers. It is them who will in the end deliver classes and who are in contact with the students. For this reason, the participants of the online meeting agreed that teachers need to be trained on the tools and pedagogical elements of distance learning and education during this health emergency. This not only relates to online classes but touches also upon issues like health and hygiene inside and outside the classroom as well as psychosocial support for students. As technical advisor to the ESWG, Ms.Noha Bawazir, Head of Office, and UNESCO Representative to Palestine, noted that UNESCO is tackling those issues through its support to the distance learning task force as well as through providing healthy lifestyle and psychosocial campaigns on social media as well as cultural activities like dance and storytelling.
It also became clear that further steps are required to realize the school reopening in early September. All partners applauded the Ministry for the conduction of the General Education exam against this difficult background which was considered a major success that can help with addressing the upcoming challenges. Notably the inclusion of the most vulnerable children needs special consideration. When sharing the results of UNESCO’s Global Education Monitoring report 2020, Mr. Borhene Chakroun, Director of the Division for Policies and Lifelong Learning Systems at UNESCO Headquarters, emphasized the need to widen the understanding of inclusive education: it is important to consider all students, regardless of identity, background, or ability. With the aim of reaching all students with their interventions, this is an important reminder for all stakeholders.
But what would happen if schools must switch back to distance learning? To prepare for this scenario, all partners are working to strengthen the distance learning in Palestine either through e-platforms, independent TV channel, mobile applications, enhanced connectivity and providing equipment. For example, the Ministry of Education is working together with UNESCO to establish a TV channel for learners who might not have stable internet access. In addition, the Ministry of Higher Education is already working together with the UNESCO Regional Office in Beirut on a framework for Arabic countries to recognize and regulate e-learning regardless of this pandemic, as Dr. Ahmad Othman, Chair of the ESWG and DG of Research at the Ministry of Higher Education, mentioned.
Finally, sustainability of all interventions is key. This is why all partners have agreed to continue working with the Ministry of Education to develop a comprehensive school reopening plan which provides pillars and orientation in these ever-changing times of uncertainty. The Education Sector Working Group will surely meet again soon to discuss the next steps.