When 27-year-old Lebanese teacher Sara Mazbouh heard news of the Covid-19 stay-at-home order, her mind went straight to her students. Mazbouh, who has been teaching for nine years at a school in the suburbs of Beirut, wondered how they would cope. After the nationwide protests and shutdowns across Lebanon in October of last year, the day-to-day lives of her students would again be paralyzed by circumstances out of their control.

In the early weeks of the shutdown, Mazbouh and her colleagues photocopied their lessons, leaving them for parents to pick up at school. Then, like countless others around the world, Mazbouh’s campus announced it would be closing for the rest of the year. Most of her students are firmly middle-class; she knew many parents wouldn’t be able to afford online learning — steady internet and a computer at home aren’t a given

Exasperated, Mazbouh messaged her fellow teachers on WhatsApp. A distance-learning solution, they soon realized, was right in front of them.

In Lebanon, where schools have been closed for over five months, WhatsApp has become an informal distance-learning app for students and teachers. The app allows educators to share their lessons using voice notes, videos, and photos in group chats that mimic a classroom structure. 

Six-year-old Omar Jamal sings a springtime nursery rhyme for Lebanese Mother’s Day in his backyard.

Lebanon’s ongoing financial crisis has made it harder and harder for families to afford their phone bills. In the wake of the massive explosion that rocked the country’s capital in early August, more than 300,000 Beirutis, up to one-third of them school-age children, have been displaced from their homes. In spite of the odds, teachers and parents are embracing creative ways to keep their “WhatsApp schools” in session.

For Mazbouh and her fellow teachers, shifting classes to WhatsApp was a matter of necessity. “The school administration didn’t even ask us to pursue WhatsApp teaching as a solution,” she says. “But the kids shouldn’t have to waste their year.” The teachers at Mazbouh’s school had such success with their ad hoc WhatsApp classroom that the administrators organized similar group chats for their elementary school counterparts.

As teachers across the country bring their classrooms to WhatsApp, they have realized there are new students in their classrooms: parents. For younger students, the adults play videos, record their kids completing assignments, and send the footage to teachers, who monitor their progress. Kindergarten teacher Noura Chehayeb shares snippets of her students’ reading progress on Facebook along with encouraging messages for their parents, whom she tags in different posts. The clips offer glimpses into each household’s unique effort to maintain normalcy during the pandemic. In one, a mom films her child singing a nursery song in their backyard. In another, a girl practices her French spelling, while her father talks at a TV playing the nightly news in the background.

Even though it was never intended to be an educational tool, there are unique benefits to WhatsApp distance learning. Some of the higher-end platforms used for distance learning require technical skills and hardware, such as laptops, that not all families possess. WhatsApp requires only a smartphone. 

Five-year-old Nourhane learns ocean vocabulary. She says she has fun getting filmed and likes to share her homework with her friends.

The app’s “read receipts” function as an unofficial monitoring tool for teachers tracking their students’ participation. Once a student opens a group chat, all texts and photos appear as “seen” from the teacher’s perspective. Antoine Gebian, a 41-year-old private-school teacher, realized WhatsApp treated audio messages a little differently: his students must open each clip to indicate a “played” receipt; he could check if they hadn’t listened to his voice notes. Gebian used the function as a sort of attendance tally for his WhatsApp classroom. While Lebanon’s school curricula are offered in French and English, many parents speak only Arabic fluently. WhatsApp’s voice notes allow Lebanese teachers to switch between the three with ease. 

But distance learning, even when held exclusively on WhatsApp, may be out of reach for Lebanon’s students this fall.

The effects of this month’s blast are far-reaching: the nearly 2,700-ton explosion obliterated Beirut’s port, Lebanon’s biggest and its main source for imports that sustain the country. The economic impact will go beyond the city itself. “Many parents are saying they can’t enroll their kids for economic and Covid reasons,” says Mazbouh, who was laid off from her job of nearly a decade in July. “The percentage of parents who are actually enrolling their kids is very low, and if they are, they’re not paying their fees.” Mazbouh’s school closed the same week she lost her job, its principal dismissed along with all the other teachers. Mazbouh says she doesn’t blame the school for the closure. “Our economic situation is very hard,” she says. “They have every right to shut down.” 

“It’s much easier for children to grasp things if they live in a physical space that portrays it.” 

That was before the August 4 blast. Initial reports indicate that more than 120 schools were damaged by the explosion, leaving some 55,000 students without physical classrooms. Lebanese authorities say they plan to host displaced families in those that haven’t been damaged. Together with the pandemic, it makes a return to the classroom this fall unlikely for many students in Lebanon. For those schools that do try to stay in session, WhatsApp may be a solution to the myriad challenges they face. 

Carla Najem, a psychologist at the American University of Beirut Medical Center, says prolonged time out of the classroom may have serious repercussions for Lebanese students. “Our basic needs are not being met right now,” says Najem. “[Students] are going through a lot mentally and emotionally.”

Even as conditions in an ailing Lebanon deteriorate, Najem says that certain aspects of distance learning, like sharing photos and videos, can ameliorate some of the long-term negative effects. “It’s much easier for children to grasp things if they live in a physical space that portrays it,” Najem says. “Maybe we need to use those things as an opportunity to help children connect.” 

Najem says we have a lot to learn from students, even as they face a daunting new school year. “Children are very resilient,” she explains. “They adapt much quicker than adults.”