Cold classrooms make school difficult, students say

cold classrooms make school difficult students say Cold classrooms make school difficult, students sayFreezing temperatures have settled over Lebanon during the past month, but children across Lebanon say the classroom is no place to escape the cold.

Government officials and school administrators say they lack the necessary funds for adequate fueling, despite appealing year after year to U.N. agencies and private donors to help keep students warm. The Daily Star spoke to Lebanese public and private school children, as well as Syrian refugees, who study in makeshift tent schools. They said that drafty classrooms and ice-numbed fingers are an ever-present distraction.

“We can’t concentrate when it’s too cold,” said Ali, a public school student from the Bekaa Valley. He and a few of his classmates were clustered together after school, their teacher nearby. One student joked that the luckiest among them gets the spot closest to the radiator.
Ali’s school is about 850 meters above sea level, and although a stubborn layer of snow and ice still blankets the streets of their neighborhood, temperatures are kept low to conserve fuel. The students said that early hours are the worst. Their teacher agreed.

“In the morning, we do exercises to help keep warm, what else can we do?” she said, adding that her students seldom remove their heavy jackets in class until the last of the winter cold is gone.
“They wear them until April,” she said.

The harsh cold spell in the wake of storm Zina prompted the Education Ministry to close schools throughout the country for a week in early January, as temperatures dropped below zero and roads were blocked by snow.

Areas more than 500 meters above sea level are particularly vulnerable to wind and low temperatures.

Temperatures in the Bekaa Valley area have risen back up to their typical January levels of above 10 degrees Celsius. School may be back in session, but classrooms remain scarcely heated.

The public school system has repeatedly called upon U.N. agencies and private donors to help fund basic needs for students, such as school supplies, books, toilet facilities and, in winter, heating fuel.

This year, Education Minister Elias Bou Saab, announced UNICEF funding of approximately 1 million liters of fuel oil to schools, with those at the highest altitudes to receive the most fuel. In a report from National News Agency, Bou Saab described heating for schools as an “urgent need.”

A Bekaa Valley-based school principal said that winter months bring anxiety and rationing of fuel. As funding from parent committees and the Education Ministry are not nearly enough to meet the need for minimum heat.

“Our only hope is based on what the U.N. gives,” he said.

During the coldest months, he said that he turns on diesel-burning radiators for only four hours per day. The low temperatures this winter have forced him to turn the heat on for eight hours per day.

“When the temperature drops below 20 [Celsius], the students start to complain that it’s too cold.”

He said there is usually a gaping difference between what the school funds provide and what is needed to comfortably heat classrooms. This year, he said that difference in monetary terms was nearly $3,000. If the price of diesel had not dropped over the past year, he estimated that figure would be much higher.

This year, 583 schools will receive UNICEF heating assistance; 225 of those are in the Bekaa Valley.

While higher elevations increase a school’s vulnerability to the cold, a source from the Education Ministry said altitude was just part of the equation. Smaller schools are particularly vulnerable, as funds from parent committees are scarcer than those from larger schools, he explained.

Further, the structure and materials of public school buildings present a challenge to maintaining comfortable temperatures, as a number of these schools are located in old houses and buildings.

“The vast majority of public schools were not built to be schools, and do not have the needed temperature insulation,” UNICEF Education officer Hassan Rajab said.

While Beirut-based students are closer to sea level, and don’t face severely low winter temperatures, the cold weather hampers their efforts to study.

“Today, it was so cold in class that my teeth were chattering,” said Alia, a student in a Burj Hammoud public school.

She said that she and her fellow classmates are often afraid to complain of the cold to their teachers. The student added that one teacher told them to wear more layers of clothing if they felt cold.

In the informal Syrian refugee settlements that dot the Bekaa Valley, tents serve as makeshift classrooms and plastic U.N. tarp provides the only barrier between students and the cold outside.

In one such settlement, the smell of burnt plastic lingers in the air, as refugees living in close quarters burn shopping bags, clothing and furniture when wood or fuel oil is not available to heat their homes. “Old jackets, shirts, shoes. We burn everything we don’t need,” one refugee said.

The students at tent schools in this settlement are luckier than others, as each learning space has an oil-burning stove given to the refugees by the U.N. and private donors.

In one tent, a classroom for children ages 6 to 8, the stove is warm, and the bright sun outside helps, but biting cold air flows through the door and the spaces near the ground. All the children have their coats on.

They say that on school days, they can’t wait for the sun to rise to help warm their makeshift classroom.

“When it gets too cold, I can’t hold the pen,” said Aya, a student.

Although the school isn’t far from the tents where students live with their families, the road to their makeshif classroom can be a dreaded journey, as stepping out of their tents can be a chore, due to snow piled up near the door.

The muddy roads have slippery ice patches and puddles that students must dodge to stay dry. Teachers hold the hands of students so they don’t slip on the ice between tents.

Even private school students face inadequate heating, despite paying thousands of dollars in tuition and fees. The parent of one teenager enrolled in private school near Kesrouan said she pays yearly tuition in excess of $6,000, but the classrooms still lack proper heating.

The parent, who declined to give her name for fear of reprisal from school officials, said that the only heating in the classrooms comes from small space heaters, which were far from enough to fight the cold.

When parents confronted school administration, they were told that providing heating was not the school’s responsibility.

“I don’t know what to do, they don’t respond, they don’t do anything,” she said.

© Copyright The Daily Star 2015.

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