About 600,000 children started a new school year in Gaza last week. It might sound like the start of an elementary math problem, but the fact is that 737 schools in the Strip operate out of only 523 structures. Two hundred ninety one structures belong to the Gaza Ministry of Education, while 178 belong to UNRWA and 54 are private schools.

The disparity between the number of schools, the number of available structures and the number of students means that 75% of Gaza’s elementary schools operate in two shifts. At shift turnover, it is not just the students that trade places, but the entire school, including teaching and administrative staff. The morning shift runs from 7:00 AM to noon, and the afternoon shift runs from noon to 5:00 PM. The decision about which schools will have to run on shifts is made according to necessity, namely the number of students and available structures in a given area. A drawing is held ahead of the school year to determine which school will take which shift, and at the end of each semester, the shifts switch: students who had the morning shift switch to afternoon and vice versa. Last school year, 428 out of 579 elementary schools in the Gaza Strip ran on shifts.

The issue of classroom shortages has plagued Gaza’s education system for many years. It was exacerbated by Israel’s restrictions on entrance of construction materials to the Strip, as well as funding difficulties, which were also exacerbated by restrictions on movement generally. According to Abed al-Bari, an official with the Ministry of Education, the public education system needs about 114 structures in order to eliminate the shift schedule. The UNRWA-run education system is short some 100 structures. In the meantime, overcrowded classrooms, budget concerns, and students traveling relatively long distances to school are the norm.

Iman Abu Shamaleh, an English teacher at Amir al-Mani B Elementary School for Boys told Gisha’s field coordinator: “During the afternoon shift, the students are noticeably less alert, and their performance is inferior to the students in the morning shift. The impact of afternoon learning is reflected not only on their performance, but also in their energy and their level of class participation.” Abu Shamaleh added that many students arrived at school without a school bag or school uniform, or in last year’s uniforms, due to the dire economic situation in the Gaza Strip. She finds that the financial situation affects the mental state of many of the students too.

Maha Shehebar, 34, a mother of students in the first and second grades, told Gisha about the challenges that come with the afternoon shift for both children and their parents: “Children should start the day in the morning, when they are alert and full of energy, not in the afternoon. Instead of them coming home in the middle of the day, having lunch, resting a little, doing homework and then having free time to play, they come home very tired, in the late afternoon. Once it gets dark and when there’s no electricity, they can’t do their homework, which further interferes with their performance.” Her own day is also determined by the children’s school schedule and the afternoon shift interferes with her own daily tasks. “When the children are home, I can’t do the housework, make food, tidy up. I start on these things after the kids go to school, when I’m already tired.”

Nisreen al-Belawi, a first grade teacher, spoke about the difficulties of the afternoon shift as a teacher and mother herself: “I have to put off housework and family visits to my days off, and I have no time left to spend time with my children and family. I also have to send the baby to a daycare that stays open late.” As far as the students are concerned, she says: “As a teacher, I clearly see a difference in motivation and enthusiasm between the kids in the morning shift and the kids in the afternoon shift. They’re less focused, more tired and tend to participate less in class.”

Abed al-Bari, the ministry official, added: “The afternoon shift prevents kids from engaging in afterschool extracurricular activities because they’re busy with school and then homework until late. In the winter, the students come home after dark. Of course, teachers are parents too and working the afternoon shift affects them, the school and their families.”

The state of the education system is a reminder of how Gaza’s interconnected challenges impede normal life there. Devastating military operations and ongoing hostilities, restrictions on movement and the internal Palestinian rift have far-reaching impact on all aspects of life in the Strip. But, despite these conditions, education is highly valued in the Strip and the percentage of students who complete high school and are eligible to take the matriculation exam in Gaza is slightly higher than among their West Bank counterparts.