Editorial: How to pressure the gov't to reopen schools

Children in European countries are now back in school, sitting at their desks learning via face-to-face instruction from their teachers, with all the necessary social and recreational components. Some of these countries, like France, have COVID-19 mortality rates ten times higher than Lebanon’s. Why, then, are Lebanese schools not open for normal learning?

Yes, Lebanon saw more deaths in the summer months, but the trend has never been exponential as it was in Europe. The overwhelming majority of new cases are not serious and the country has never even reached half of ICU capacity. Objectively speaking, Lebanon has not suffered badly from this pandemic, yet the fear mongering of medical professionals and government officials continues, perpetually insisting that the country is on the verge of catastrophe. There is insufficient evidence to support this conclusion.

Meanwhile, no one is happy. Parents struggle to balance their own jobs with supervising online learning. Children get a substandard education without the social interaction required for healthy personal growth. Teachers miss the chance to leave their impression on developing young minds. School administrators feel frustration because they cannot deliver their value proposition.

Poorly reasoned and badly executed government decisions have caused these unpopular circumstances, and they must be challenged and reversed. That requires coordinated political action by the affected stakeholders. Fortunately, the change demanded is narrow in scope and modest by comparison to the usual gripes with the Lebanese government. We’re not asking them to audit Banque du Liban, disarm Hezbollah, or abolish sectarianism. We simply want kids to go back to school.

A focused strategy can apply enough pressure to force reversal of the policy, starting with a coordinated local campaign targeted at Education Ministry employees. The phone lines of the Ministry should be ringing off the hook with unhappy parents calling to complain. A list of employees should be compiled, including their phone numbers, emails, facebook pages, instagram profiles, etc. so that they also can be personally bombarded with the same complaints. Such grassroots action need not be violent or vulgar, but it should make their lives miserable, because they work for the people, not for the Minister. It’s not “aib” or “haram” to create an atmosphere at the Ministry so unpleasant that the staff themselves start to shout at their bosses, “just send them back to school already, we cannot take it anymore!”

The same pressure should be applied via other influential people around the Minister, such as professional colleagues like school administrators or syndicate leaders, who have a direct line to the decision maker. Make his every waking moment a reminder that people are angry. His personal connections should feel the pain as well. If his wife’s social circle starts to talk about nothing but her husband’s professional conundrum, a resolution won’t be too far away. Nobody wants an unhappy spouse. Never underestimate how often politicians, in any country, choose certain policies simply to avoid headaches.

Reinforcing this local campaign would be pressure from abroad, especially France. Even before Emmanuel Macron intensified his interest in Lebanon following the August 4 explosion, France had pledged $15 million to assist beleaguered Lebanese schools. But if schools are not even open, where are those funds going? At a minimum, French taxpayers will want to know why their money is being sent to schools in a country that has not had even 1/10 the COVID-19 death toll per million residents, yet for some reason cannot resume normal classroom education like France has done.

A media and lobbying campaign in Paris should provoke this question and suggest that until schools in Lebanon operate normally, the money equates to a slush fund for the Lebanese Education Ministry. Since Macron has already made, in his own words, a “risky bet” by focusing so heavily on Lebanon, even a hint of French largesse abetting corruption in the education sector will undermine his credibility. As a result, he’ll want to stop the negative media campaign and will intervene to appease those behind it.

Of course, a campaign like that costs money to run, but no more than a tiny percentage of what parents are already paying in tuition for less value than their kids deserve. Perhaps the private schools themselves should fund the effort, merely for their own sakes. If frustrating distance learning continues much longer, they risk bankruptcy, as more and more parents have begun to contemplate pulling their kids out in favor of home schooling co-ops that offer personalized zoom-free private education for lower cost.

Schooling needs to get back to normal, and immediately. It’s up to the people to force the government to change policy through a smart, strategic campaign. Apply pressure to the right spots and watch how quickly kids will be back in class where they belong.