Following two regional technical webinars on school reopening in the Arab countries (20 May and 8 July 2020), UNESCO Beirut, in collaboration with UNICEF MENARO and other partner UN Agencies (UNHCR, WFP, UNRWA and The World Bank), conducted on 14 October 2020 a Ministerial Meeting to mark the launching of the new school year 2020/2021 in the context of the COVID-19 crisis.
The Ministerial Meeting was attended by 16 ministerial teams who have responded to the invitation to share their experiences, achievements and challenges in coping with back to quality learning for all with a view of learning from one another and building on promising policies and practices.
In his opening speech, Dr. Hamed Al Hammami, Director of the UNESCO Beirut, highlighted the joint efforts several UN agencies (UNESCO, UNICEF, UNHCR, UNRWA, WFP, the World Bank and WHO) have pulled together over the last eight months in supporting Member States cope with the impact on education of the COVID-19 crisis. He has also congratulated WFP for being awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace 2020, which makes the UN family very proud and motivates all agencies all the more so to work relentlessly to support their Member States. Dr. Al Hammami emphasized the importance of high-level policy dialogue in order to “make visible the efforts of our Arab States in dealing with the COVID-19 crisis so that we can learn from one another and enrich the Regional and international discussion on sustaining quality learning in these unprecedented and difficult times.”
The extremely rich and relevant contributions of their Excellencies, the Ministers of Education of the Arab States, as well as the subsequent discussions provided a comprehensive overview of the innovative solutions Arab countries have put in place, as well as of the outstanding challenges countries still face in coping with the effects on education of the COVID-19 crisis. The main issues raised, as well as the important conclusions and suggestions for improving regional cooperation, are summarized below:
- Arab countries Ministers of Education have stressed the importance of referring to the Global Framework for Reopening Schools (April 2020 and subsequent revisions by UNICEF, UNESCO, WB and UNHCR) in the process of customizing the global recommendations for safe school reopening to the Arab States contexts.
- Countries have put in place and continue to invest important resources in preventive measures and in developing the capacities of all those working in schools (teachers, principals, caretakers, psychologists, sanitary personnel, etc.) to ensure that health, hygiene and wellbeing measures are being respected according to relevant and updated sanitary and wellbeing protocols.
- Given the continuous volatile sanitary situation, and in spite of learners, teachers and families eagerly awaiting the reopening of schools, in many countries several scenarios had to be envisaged, that include: (a) total school reopening if conditions permit; (b) a blended/hybrid approach to learning by alternating in-person and distance learning; and (c) back to distance, including online learning, in the case the sanitary situation worsens.
- In the case of blended and hybrid approaches, schools were supported to implement flexible solutions, based on reducing the number of students in classrooms and alternating/rotating student groups to benefit equitably from in-person and distance learning.
- While distance learning (based on high, medium and low/no technology solutions) constitutes an effective way of ensuring the continuity of learning in times of the Covid-19 pandemic, it should not be considered a substitute to in-person learning and face-to-face schooling.
- Many countries have established online platforms and/or have built on existing online platforms in an effort to digitalize learning in all its aspects (i.e. cognitive, social and emotional) and components, that include teaching and learning processes; learning resources and environments; and learning assessment.
- Engaging with families and communities has been essential in ensuring the continuity of learning in uncertain and new conditions, especially for the most vulnerable. Ministries of Education have closely collaborated with ministries of Health, Social Affairs and Communications in supporting families, including working mothers, in dealing with the challenges of mastering the ICT infrastructure and the distance/online learning prerequisites. Such cooperation has been also crucial in complementing ICT-enabled learning with TV (i.e. dedicated TV channels), radio and other more traditional means especially in reaching out to the most vulnerable.
- Arab countries ministers of education have all emphasized the role of early planning based on flexible and comprehensive (re)assessments of the situation, road maps and back to school/back to learning protocols developed in cooperation with strategic partners such as other ministries, UN agencies, regional partners, business/private sector and civil society.
- The Ministers have equally emphasized the importance of timely and transparent communication with all education stakeholders in order to create mutual trust and positive working environments in times of high uncertainty.
- In one voice, all country delegations have reiterated the importance of reinforcing regional cooperation with a view of building on one another’s experiences and optimizing investments based on avoiding the waste of resources and the duplication of efforts.
- The Ministers have come up with several important suggestions to reinforce their regional cooperation with the support of UN agencies and other partners, such as through sharing successful practices via dedicated platforms (for instance, on developing teacher skills in mastering distance/online learning; and putting in place reliable learning assessment); regional studies on learning gaps and losses; and making available Arabic Open Education Resources (OER).
During the closing session, the Regional Director of UNICEF MENARO, Mr. Ted Chaiban, reiterated the commitment of partner UN agencies to further support the Arab States, according to their mandates and capacities, in order to make sure that all children can learn and nobody is left behind.
At the end of the meeting, Mr. Chaiban invited the participant to watch a video on back to learning in the Arab states that UNICEF and partner UN agencies have developed based on a school song of the seventies (https://www.dropbox.com/s/zebcnrh1s1id3m0/BTS_FINAL.mp4?dl=0).
The Ministers expressed their gratitude to UN agencies for organizing the ministerial meeting, as well as their desire that such meetings should be intensified so as to allow for a thorough and timely documentation of the efforts Arab countries are making in reaching SDG4 goals in the difficult times of the COVID-19 crisis and in the spirit of transforming crisis into opportunities.
Ms. Dakmara Georgescu, PhD
Ms. Hana Yoshimoto
 Algeria, Bahrain, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Mauritania, Morocco, Oman, Palestine, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Tunisia, U.A.E. and Yemen.