By Abdelhaq Hammam and Avery Edelman

DAMASCUS: Schools in the opposition-held suburbs of Damascus suspended class for a period of 20 consecutive days spanning the end of March and early April, amid an ongoing government bombing campaign that has included attacks on schools.

The current bombardment of the East Ghouta suburbs, which have been besieged by pro-government forces since 2012, coincides with a government campaign to cut off the smuggling routes that supply 300,000 people in the area with essential goods including food, fuel and medical supplies.

That campaign began in mid-February with attacks on three opposition-held east Damascus neighborhoods, al-Qaboun, Tishreen and Barzeh, which were linked to East Ghouta via tunnels running beneath government-held territory.

In the period since, the suburbs have seen an unprecedented level of government attacks and the education directorate of eastern Damascus reported at least four instances in which educational facilities in the area were hit.

A school in Marj, East Ghouta was targeted by government forces on March 7. Photo courtesy of the Damascus Countryside Education Directorate.

“Classes are suspended during escalations [in fighting], out of fear that schools will be targeted with students inside,” Jamal Ahmad al-Mohammad, a member of the education directorate’s media department, told the Syrian Voice.

According to the directorate’s statistics department, classes across East Ghouta were officially suspended on seven separate days since the government offensive began, while school administrations in each of the region’s towns were left to decide on a daily basis if additional closures were necessary.

For the administration in East Ghouta’s central district, that meant cancelling class for about three weeks, from March 19 through April 8.

The central district, which includes the towns of Saqba, Hamouriyah, Arabin, Kafr Batna and Hazeh, was subject to particularly intense bombardment during that period, including an attack on Hamouriyah’s Rawda Market which killed 15 and wounded 70.

Damage following at attack on Rawda Market in Hamouriya on March 25. Photo courtesy of SMART News Agency.

Al-Mohammad nonetheless noted that suspending class does not mean that the school community is protected from attack.

He said the directorate has recorded injuries among students and school staff during both regular school days and periods of suspension.

In one recent example that took place while classes were in session on March 7, a strike on a school in Douma resulted in the death of one student and an injured teacher.

East Ghouta schools operate under emergency system

School closures are not new to East Ghouta, where educational facilities have been targeted by the Syrian regime a number of times since the siege began in 2012.

According to the education directorate, schools in East Ghouta were targeted at least 13 times this school year alone, including an attack on a preschool last November which resulted in the death of eight children and injuries to 25 others.

Among the 140 schools in East Ghouta, which serve about 50,000 students, 15 percent have now been closed due to bombing, according to the directorate.

In light of frequent closures and student absences, school administrations are operating under an emergency system in which curriculums are condensed and subjects considered less-crucial are removed all together.

This system puts significant pressure on students and teachers who must make-up for lost time, according to Omar Bashir, a French teacher in East Ghouta. The result is decreased academic achievement, he added.

“She didn’t dare return to school”

Alongside the academic impact of school attacks lies the psychological one.

“When students are at a school that is targeted by bombing, it leaves a psychological injury,” said al-Mohammad, of the education directorate’s media department.

He added the directorate has seen “dozens of cases” in which children are suffering from the psychological impact of bombings.

“Some refrain from returning to school,” he added.

After her classes were suspended for 20 days, Ayesha Hussein, 7, “didn’t dare return to school,” her mother told the Syrian Voice. “She’s scared of the bombings.”

Ayesha now works alongside her mother, a street vendor, instead of attending class.

“She got used to being by my side [during the suspension],” her mother said.

Government forces hit a school in Douma, East Ghouta on February 26, killing one student. Photo courtesy of Douma Revolution.

Huda Khateeb, principal of a school in East Ghouta, noted that the psychological impact can manifest in different ways.

“We’ve recorded cases of involuntary urination, stuttering and students who hide under their chairs in fear of an attack,” she said.

Khateeb relayed the story of Abdul Qader, 8, to the Syrian Voice.

“In the classroom, he puts books over his head and tells the teacher that he’s in a grave.”

“When the teacher calls on him, he says he needs help getting out, that he can’t get out by himself because the grave is too narrow.”

Abdul Qader is no longer attending school, Khateeb said.

Schools across Syria have been targeted throughout the conflict by both government and opposition forces.

UNICEF recorded a total of 60 attacks on schools in 2015 and at least 38 in 2016.

One in every three schools in the country is now destroyed, damaged or used as shelter and 1.7 million children are out of school, according to the UN agency.

Original Arabic article found here.