War’s toll on education in Gaza casts shadow over children’s future

With pupils and teachers uprooted and buildings destroyed, it is likely to be many months before classes can resume

Mohammad Mosa packed his laptop when he fled his home in October and hoped he would still be able to Zoom into classes between airstrikes. The 14-year-old has his heart set on a competitive scholarship and has studied through wars before.

Two months later, the only new thing he has learned is how to bake bread over an open fire. Intense bombardment and a tight blockade have meant that civilian life in Gaza has turned into a daily fight to survive, and education is one of the many casualties.

“There is absolutely no form of education or schooling in the Gaza Strip at the moment,” said Jonathan Crick, a spokesperson for Unicef in Jerusalem. “There were approximately 625,000 [school-age] students in the Gaza Strip before the escalation of hostilities and none of them are attending schools now. The level of violence and the ongoing hostilities, the intense bombing which is taking place, doesn’t allow for education.”

Outside Gaza, this tragedy has gone relatively unnoticed amid even more urgent crises. More than 7,700 children have been killed, thousands injured, and there is no end to the bombing in sight. Others are starving, severely ill or at risk of disease because they have no access to clean water or sanitation.

It will be many weeks, and more likely many months, before any children in Gaza start studying again. For survivors, this gap in their education – on top of time lost to Covid and previous conflicts – will cast a long shadow over their future, adding to the legacy of trauma and loss from this war.

There is no prospect of schools reopening while the airstrikes and attacks rage with an intensity that has not spared Gaza’s classrooms, teachers or students. Suha Musa, who was a maths teacher at Al-Zaytoun boys’ school in west Gaza, said: “I love my students very much and think about them all the time. Before, their greatest wish was to get a perfect score in their tests. Now, they think about how to survive death and displacement.”

By mid-December, 352 school buildings had been damaged, more than 70% of the enclave’s education infrastructure, UN figures show. Many of those still standing have become shelters, including more than 150 UNWRA schools and about 130 schools run by local authorities. “They cannot of course hold any kind of lesson when the shelters are already overcrowded,” Crick said.

There are hundreds of staff who, like their students, will never come back to classrooms. At least 200 teachers have been killed and more than 500 injured. Survivors are scattered – more than 80% of the population has been displaced – and in no state to work or learn. They are hungry, thirsty and cold, with little access to electricity or the internet.

“My friends from school, from my boxing club and my English language club have all fled Gaza City, and communication is hard because there is so little internet connection,” said Mohammad, whose home is in an area where Israeli troops are fighting ground battles with Hamas militants.

On top of the logistical challenges, there is the constantly mounting trauma, the news of family and friends killed, injured or missing. Even before the current war began, four out of five children in Gaza were living with depression, fear and grief.

“I heard that my friend Ahmed Yaghi is in Khan Younis, and today’s news mentioned bombings in that area,” Mohammad said. “I couldn’t get through to check up on him, and then I got the devastating news that my friend Ibrahim and his entire family were killed.”

He had wept when he heard about the deaths. Like many other children in Gaza, his dreams now have collapsed into hoping the bombs will stop. “When the bombing started again [after the temporary ceasefire], it felt unbearable. I just hope for an end to the war so we can return to a normal life,” he said.

Educators and aid groups warn that even if a long-term ceasefire is agreed, a return to anything like normality in Gaza will take a long time because the damage has been so extensive.

“When we talk about education, we are talking about a system, as with healthcare,” Crick said. “It is absolutely impossible that these systems would be put back in place without a long-lasting humanitarian ceasefire. In order to be able to help the children properly and at scale, this is essential.”

Classrooms will be the first big problem because there was already a shortage before this conflict. Many schools operated double shifts, where a set of buildings hosts one “school” in the mornings and another cohort of students in the afternoon – so damage to a single building can mean two schools can no longer operate. “You can just imagine the challenge that it will be to relaunch a proper education system, when it was already in such a catastrophic situation,” Crick said.

Then there is equipment and teaching materials. In schools that are still standing, desperate refugees have been using wooden chairs and benches to make fires for cooking because there is no gas.

Aid groups can send in tents and equipment, but teaching staff will be much harder to replace. University students and colleagues mourning Refaat Alareer, a poet who was killed by an Israeli airstrike, said they would miss his classes as much as his writing.

“Teaching for him was a vocation, not a profession,” said Akram Habeeb, a colleague in the English department at the Islamic University of Gaza, where Alareer taught Shakespeare. “I don’t think any teacher can replace him at the moment. He always encouraged his students to be creative, to think creatively. He didn’t want them to just follow what he said.”

Alareer was not in the university when he died, but the campus has also been bombed, and other casualties from the faculty include the university’s president, Sufyan Tayeh, killed with his family by another Israeli airstrike.

Even if classrooms are rebuilt, textbooks brought in and new teachers trained, Musa worries that children will see their schools differently, after so many have spent time crammed into them, enduring cold, hunger, filth and terror.

“The students’ image of their schools, how they value them, changed after they became shelters,” she said. “Their mental health will certainly be affected by the difficult conditions they are enduring. They will need a long time to prepare themselves to study again.”