A few weeks ago, when the schools were shut down because of the coronavirus crisis, an elementary school principal in an Arab city in central Israel conducted a survey. How many of the children had a computer? Access to the internet? Mobile internet?
About 40 percent didn’t have a computer at home. A third of those who did said they had problems using the gadgets, problems with things like Microsoft Word and email.
“We hadn’t thought about such a situation, that schools would be closed all at once,” said the principal, Majada Natour, whose school is in the town of Kalansua.
Kautar Sheikh-Issa, an elementary school principal in the city of Kafr Qasem to the south, conducted a similar survey. It turned out that 89 children out of 300 had no computer at home. “Those who have a computer have to share it with others,” she said.
Israel’s education system was only partially prepared for distance learning. The system broke down during an emergency drill only a few weeks before the coronavirus crisis erupted in Israel, and many problems continued into the system’s early days.
But things are worse in Arab towns and villages. In a poll released by the Central Bureau of Statistics in December, 43 percent of Arab Israelis said they used a computer at home, compared with 77 percent of Jewish Israelis.
Similar numbers are seen in a position paper last week by the Abraham Initiatives, a nonprofit group that promotes equality and coexistence between Israel’s Jews and Arabs. The document warns that internet infrastructure in many Arab towns is shaky, with inadequate bandwidth making it hard to see a video, for example.
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“Without advanced and stable infrastructure … it will not be possible to advance digitization that will improve the access of students and teachers,” the report states.
The WhatsApp solution
To help solve the hardware problem, Natour distributed 48 of the school’s computers and tablets to students who did not have a device. Despite the coronavirus threat, the school opened its doors for a few hours – with the Education Ministry’s approval. Parents came to pick up the computers, as well as textbooks.
“Still, there are students who haven’t received a device and they don’t have internet access at home,” Natour said.
So she’s seeking any way possible to solve the problem. Teachers send their students assignments via their parents' WhatsApp accounts. For those who don’t even have that app, it’s regular text messaging.
“The assignments have to be made appropriate; not everyone can do the same assignments,” Natour said.
Sheikh-Issa, the principal in Kafr Qasem, notes that she had to forget about Zoom video conferencing.
“One teacher came up with an idea,” she said. “We identify students who are having problems reading, and the teacher sends them an assignment from the textbook through their parents’ WhatsApp. They record themselves reading a text and send it back. We have no other way.”
“There are students whose internet isn’t strong enough to join a class on Zoom,” added Ahmed Amtirat, an 11th-grader from the ORT school in the Bedouin town of Kseifa in the Negev. He also studies at the Tamar Center for excellence in the sciences and technology – a program designed for Bedouin students.
With all these problems, some students have declared that they have no way of studying during the crisis, “but most of the class is still studying,” Amtirat said.
As far as Natour is concerned, the technical difficulties are just background noise compared to the real problem. “I miss the contact with the students,” she said. “To see the spark in their eyes. Behind the screens it’s possible to teach material, but we‘re losing the human touch.”
No electricity, no learning
While the gaps between Arab and Jewish communities are clear regarding digital resources, Abraham Initiatives notes another obstacle: The entrance to the Education Ministry’s online portal for remote learning is only in Hebrew. Also, the number of recorded classes in Arabic is modest compared to Hebrew.
Not all students in Arab towns have access to classes broadcast online or on television channels offered by the Hot cable company and the Partner and Cellcom cellular service providers.
Last week, a teacher at Natour’s school gave a class that was recorded and broadcast, whether by computer, smartphone or television – but not everyone had access. “These are families in harsh financial condition, and people have their own priorities,” Natour said.
The situation is especially difficult in the Bedouin community in the Negev, where online learning is often impossible.
“The unrecognized villages in the Negev, where tens of thousands of school-age children live, are not connected to the power grid and have no internet,” states a document sent to the Education Ministry this week by the Association for Civil Rights in Israel and the University of Haifa’s Clinic for Law and Educational Policy.
The authors, attorneys Tal Hassin and Haran Reichman, warn that the “online learning model leaves tens of thousands of students on the outside, whether because they do not have end-user equipment – computers and tablets – that would let them participate, or because they live in communities where there is no infrastructure that allows a connection to the network, or there is even no electricity.”
Hassin and Reichman call on the Education Ministry to make the internet more accessible in the Bedouin communities in the Negev, in East Jerusalem and among asylum seekers – or for any other group that needs it.
“It’s not easy at all,” said Fatma Abu Jaffar, an English teacher at the comprehensive high school in the Bedouin city of Rahat in the northern Negev. “Even those who have a computer have to share it with a lot of brothers and sisters.”
Abu Jaffar sends her students assignments that can be done on a cellphone that usually belongs to a parent. “The mothers say: ‘I have seven other children at home, which one can I give my phone to?’ It’s very hard, for the parents too,” she said.
When one mother complained that her children were fighting over the family’s only cellphone in order to study, Abu Jaffar sent a list of English words and suggested that the oldest brother practice them with his younger siblings. “It was a success,” she said.
The need for such creative solutions is forcing her to work very hard.
“I can’t sit for a minute without my phone because some people send messages, others call, everyone how they can,” she said. “That’s good; the students want to succeed.”