Schools throughout Lebanon closed on October 15, a day after clashes in Beirut left seven people dead and 30 injured, according to the Lebanese Red Cross.
The violence increased pressure on the education system, which is already close to collapse due to worsening insecurity, political instability and Lebanon’s unprecedented financial crisis. (See a related article, “For Many Universities in Lebanon, Survival May Be at Stake.”)
Many parents cannot afford skyrocketing tuition fees. Classes are disrupted by fuel shortages which have cut the electricity supply to a couple of hours a day and this month briefly brought the national grid to a complete stop.
Large numbers of teachers have emigrated, and growing tensions could accelerate the brain drain, while many parents feel that it has become too dangerous to send their children to school.
Tension Over Port Blast Inquiry
The fighting in Beirut on October 14 broke out during a sectarian protest against the judge in charge of the investigation into the Beirut port explosion on August 4 of last year. The explosion killed 219 people, some 7,000 people were injured, and more than 250,000 lost their homes, but no one has yet been held responsible. (See a related article, “Beirut Blast Cripples an Educational and Cultural Capital.”)
According to Human Rights Watch, 15 percent of Lebanese households pulled their children out of school this year, while UNICEF reports that 400,000 children were not in school in 2020.
The judge leading the investigation, Tarek Bitar, has summonsed several former government ministers and officials of the Amal and Hezbollah parties for questioning. The parties, which represent the Shia community, accuse him of being politically biased and organized the demonstration against him in front of the Palace of Justice.
Bursts of gunfire came from the nearby Tayyouneh neighbourhood, scattering the protesters and triggering clashes between rival factions there and in the districts of Ain el Remmaneh and Chiyah for at least five hours.
The shooting created a wave of panic, as local residents ran for their homes. Prime Minister Najib Mikati called for the restoration of calm, as did most political leaders in Lebanon and abroad.
Widespread Panic in Schools
Videos and photos circulating on social media showed terrified schoolchildren hiding in corridors and under tables to seek shelter from the gunfire. There were scenes of panic in schools: traumatized pupils, teachers in tears, distraught parents trying to take their children away. Classes were quickly stopped, and children taken home by school buses or parents, except in areas where clashes were taking place.
In Our Lady of Nazareth School, the administration confined the children inside the walls and attempted to divert their attention from what was happening outside. Teachers did their best to protect the children’s mental health, although some of the staff too were panicked.
While residents of the affected areas asked to be evacuated and a civilian was killed in her home by a stray bullet, children stayed trapped in schools for hours. Four projectiles fell near the private school Collège Notre Dame des Frères–Furn el Chebbak. Some observers compared the situation to the Lebanese civil war, which lasted from 1975 to 1990.
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Panic spread to other regions of Lebanon, including the Bekaa valley, where several schools stopped classes and asked parents to pick up their children as soon as possible.
Most schools decided not to open their doors on Friday, fearing that the situation could get worse. The Ministry of Education announced that the decision to close or not was up to each school individually.
Some higher-education institutions, including the American University of Beirut, also chose to close.