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BEIRUT: Lebanon is grappling with an education “emergency,” a United Nations official said, as years of economic collapse weigh heavily on students and teachers.

“We are now in an emergency situation. Education in Lebanon is in crisis because the country is living in crisis,” Maysoun Chehab of the UN education and culture body (UNESCO) told AFP.

She spoke on the sidelines of an event Monday celebrating the completion of a $35-million UNESCO project to rehabilitate 280 education centres damaged by a 2020 blast.

The explosion caused by haphazardly stored fertiliser at Beirut port killed more than 200 people, destroyed swathes of the capital and disrupted the education of at least 85,000 youths.

UNESCO chief Audrey Azoulay visited Beirut weeks later, driving efforts to restore heritage sites and damaged schools.

Students and teachers now have brand new classrooms but they are still suffering from the twin effects of an unprecedented economic crisis in Lebanon and the coronavirus pandemic.

Since late 2019, the Lebanese pound has lost over 90 percent of its value, pushing most of the population into poverty.

Daily power cuts lasting more than 20 hours and soaring petrol prices mean many students can neither afford to reach their classes nor study from home.

“Schools do not have enough funds to operate as they should, teachers do not have sufficient salaries to live in prosperity, students do not have transportation means due to high fuel prices,” said Chehab, UNESCO’s education chief for Lebanon.

“This is all affecting the quality of education.”

The minimum wage once worth $450 is now valued at $28.

The crisis has forced students to quit school or university to make ends meet.

Enrolment in educational institutions slumped from 60 percent last year to 43 percent in the current academic year, a UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) report found.

The cash-strapped state has been unable to enact substantial reforms, a requirement to access billions of dollars from international lenders.

Support has been largely limited to humanitarian aid.

UNESCO Assistant Director-General for Education Stefania Giannini, however, said she was optimistic the international community will keep supporting education in Lebanon.

“This is my third visit to the country in a year and a half,” she said.

“I know the economic crisis is still very much affecting (the country), but I am also confident Lebanon will not be left behind in the bigger picture of crises in the world.”

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