UNICEF’s innovative distant-learning method provides education to children during lockdown

Supporting children in rural Homs, Syria, to study at home during COVID-19 restrictions

Lina Alqassab
two girls studying
22 June 2020

Syria, Homs, 22 June 2020 – For three months now, children’s access to schools and education centres have been disrupted by measures put in place in response to COVID-19 in Syria. In Kafr-Laha town in northern rural Homs, where fighting had already forced many of the children out of school, the impact of lacking access to education is significant.

To help the children keep up with their learning and stay in touch with their peers and educators while remaining safely at home, UNICEF-supported partners came up with an innovative learning method. Relying on modest available technology, educators combined distant-learning classes, conducted through WhatsApp -the internet-based messaging application- with home visits, run by mobile teams to the homes of students for distributing and collecting learning material.

“I created a WhatsApp group for my Grade one self-learning students as a temporary substitute for the classroom,” says Mr. Saleh Al-Sawah, a teacher at a UNICEF-supported multiservice platform in Kafr-Laha that supports out of school children or those at risk of dropping out.

“I set up weekly schedules with help from the centre, then send digital invitations to my students in advance.”

a teacher checking a notebook
Mr. Saleh preparing a lesson for his first-grade self-learning students

During the virtual classes, teachers and students use typing, voice notes and photos to explain the lessons, express their ideas and ask questions. After each lesson, teachers send paper homework to their students with the help of UNICEF-supported local community mobile teams. The papers are then collected by the mobile teams, corrected by teaches to be distributed again together with the new homework and so on.

“Though we struggle with poor internet connection in the area and the lack of enough mobile phone devices available to children, the students have all been eager to continue learning during the lockdown,” says Mr. Al-Sawah.

13-year-old twins Nour and Huda are two students benefitting of the distant-learning in Kafr- Laha.  

At the age of five, due to the conflict, Nour and Huda’s family was forced to flee their home in Kafr-Laha to Lebanon where they lived under difficult circumstances and (the girls) were able to receive only three sporadic years of learning. In 2018, following their return home, both struggled at school attempting to overcome the difference in the teaching language between Lebanon and Syria, to eventually drop out last year.

“About a month ago, a mobile team knocked on our door and introduced a distant-learning program. The girls were really excited hearing about it,” says Amal, the twin’s mother. Nour and Huda were registered in grade one, facilitated through the UNICEF-supported multiservice platform, following a placement test they went through. “I like how they interact with the WhatsApp lessons despite being very shy and quiet in real life,” their mother says. “It breaks my heart to see how their education has been badly affected. But the progress they’re making ever since they began taking the virtual classes, gives me hope,” Amal adds as her two girls shyly smile.

An adolescent boy talking to a worker
Mohamad, 13 years old, benefits from an innovative distant-learning programme, helping children keep up with their learning during COVID-19 measures in Syria

13-year- old Mohammad is another student who benefits from this learning programme, sometimes finding it even preferable to being in an actual classroom. “In the real classroom, I get distracted by noise or would miss parts of the lesson especially since schools have become overcrowded during conflict years,” he says. “With the WhatsApp classes, I find it easier to focus and go back to ideas using the recorded files.”

Determined to realize his dream of becoming a lawyer in the future, Mohammad, who was out of school for five years due to the conflict affecting Kafr-Laha, successfully passed grade seven last year. He is now preparing to be ready for grade nine next year, especially after all grade eight students were granted a pass as a result of COVID-19 prevention measures in Syria.

 “I received ten days of preparatory lessons on WhatsApp. They were very useful. Now I’m signing up for in-person remedial classes at the centre after COVID-19 restrictions have been eased in Syria,” he says.

“In only four days, we received about 100 applicants to remedial classes of grades nine and ten at the Kafr-Laha centre, and we expect more in the coming days,” says Hala Alsibai, UNICEF Education Officer in Homs. “These children are so eager to resume learning.”

During COVID-19 restrictions and despite the challenges, since last month, thanks to generous support from Finland and Japan, UNICEF is reaching over 400 children and adolescents with self-learning and remedial classes support including the distant-learning programme.