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WRITE-UP | Truncated Education | Back to school in pandemic

The fear of the pandemic in Venezuela is not trivial. Returning to face-to-face classes poses challenges that the public education system is unable to meet. Without adequate schools; without a sufficient number of teachers; without formal educational programs; with an insufficient school feeding program; without having yet achieved the necessary immunity and without a leveling program to make up for the lag that distance education produced, the return to school is unsustainable in the short term.

By: Maruja Dagnino | Image: Daniel Hernández | Graphics: María Alejandra Domínguez

HumVenezuela, December 2021.- After 22 months of suspension of classes in schools in Venezuela, returning to the classroom seems not entirely possible. During the almost two years in Venezuela that there was only distance education, improvisation and a chaotic education system were the metronome of an outmoded orchestra. Today, the return to face-to-face education seems another leap into chaos.

Parents, who at best have to take care of themselves at work, cannot provide for teachers because, in principle, they do not have the pedagogical tools to carry out the teaching function. In the worst case, which is the most common situation, these children and teenagers live in precarious conditions, in houses with lack of food, services and knowledge. In the poorest sectors, mothers and fathers, who sometimes have not even completed primary education, are frequent; there is also a pattern of single mothers, who have to go out to provide for the household and at the same time take care of the upbringing of their children.

Just as the distance classes were not a good experiment, the long-awaited back to school in the face-to-face classes announced by the government, less than a week in advance, drags the same vices. The system does not provide the necessary conditions for (in the midst of a complex humanitarian emergency and a Covid-19 pandemic that threatens to rebound thanks to the new omicron variant) this option could be sustainable.

In a call for back-to-school, a September 2021 UNICEF note argued that “the most recent data from around the world shows that schools are not associated with an increase in transmission of COVID-19, but they reflect the level of transmission in the community.” Returning to the classroom, however, is a huge challenge for a Venezuela that has not achieved herd immunity.

Although on November 14 the government assured that 74% of the population was vaccinated against COVID-19, the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) reported that Venezuela remains below 40% of vaccination coverage against COVID-19. A little more than 26 million doses have been applied in the country, of which almost 16.5 million (57.1%) correspond to the first dose and almost 10 million (34.3%) to the second dose. Although the government claims that more than 70% of the population has been immunized, the information provided by the Ministry of Health to PAHO showed that the difference exceeds 30 percentage points, explained Transparencia Venezuela in a note published on December 8.

Back to school, in any case, is a complex decision. On the one hand, there is an urgent need for children and teenagers to be able to make up for their classes because, if they do not do so, they will face considerable learning delays and, in the case of initial education, basic deficiencies in reading and writing. But on the other hand, schools today are more deteriorated than before the pandemic. Some have even been robbed by the underworld and the vast majority have electricity, water, gas and other services failures. No less serious are the problems of infrastructure in general, it means that there are not quality schools and not enough schools. To this is added the lack of pedagogical strategies, teachers, and a poor school feeding plan.

Luisa Pernalete, coordinator of education for peace in Fe y Alegría, thinks that a challenge posed by education today in Venezuela is to return to face-to-face classes, as Fe y Alegría has been doing: gradual, progressive, staggered. “It is not that today everyone will come and every day we will have full assistance. That’s not going to work as long as we have a pandemic, but students need to learn to socialize and they also need the protection of the school.”

If, as it is warned by the researcher at the Andrés Bello Catholic University, Luis Pedro España, the school is the space of socialization destined to break the cycle of poverty, it is essential to recover education to overcome the Complex Humanitarian Emergency that Venezuela has been facing since 2016. This means that, as long as schools are closed and the State passes the baton to families that are already sufficiently hit by the economic fragility and the high social vulnerability to which they are subjected, overcoming the crisis and the suffering it generates will be increasingly difficult. Only with education can equity be achieved. The slope is steep.

With the pockets empty for school expenses

Back to school began difficult for parents. A report by the Venezuelan newspaper Tal Cual shows that in fairs, bookstores and shops, the prices of school supplies, uniforms and shoes are expressed in US dollars, although it can be canceled in Bolivars. In the Táchira state they are sold in Colombian pesos. The portal took as a reference the list of fourth grade elementary, and reporters found that it takes at least 31 dollars for them, to which we must add two pairs of shoes (for school and sports) of USD 20 each. A $ 12 pant, a $ 6 sporty outfit, and even a single shirt, which has an average cost between $ 8 and $ 10. All that is a total of $ 100. And sometimes students from just one family take turns at school because they have to share the same uniform, which sometimes can’t even be washed due to lack of soap or water.

The Venezuelan Finance Observatory (OVF) reported in September that, although inflation slowed for the second consecutive month, education prices reflected an acceleration of 66.2% in September inflation, taking into account that mothers, fathers and children representatives had to spend more than $ 29 to pay for basic education books. The OVF estimated at Bs. 2028,53 (approximately USD 450) the cost of the education basket, which includes both school supplies and uniforms, according to the Venezuelan newspaper Crónica Uno.

According to the opinion expressed by teachers in the survey for the group Educa Miranda on the situation of schools in the capital region, among the factors that affect the return to face-to-face classes are, first of all, its hard employment situation, with 73%; secondly, because of the lack of vaccination (71%); third, the limitations to comply with biosecurity measures (66%); fourth, the shortage of teachers (60%); fifth, the feeding deficiencies of the children (58%); and finally, the poor conditions of school infrastructure, with 55%.

Regarding the shortage of teachers, 39% of respondents reported that their school does not have all the educators needed, and of that 39%, 32% belong to public schools, 1% to private and 6% to subsidized institutions. Among the specialties in which teachers are scarce, there are history, biology, chemistry and mathematics, Raquel Figueroa, a specialist in education policies, a union leader of the Venezuelan Teachers’ College Federation and a representative of the Democratic Unity of the Education Sector (UDSE), told HumVenezuela. “And the strongest expression of this is that the Universidad Experimental Libertador, which trains teachers, had to close earth sciences because there was no new income, and the percentage of decrease in enrollment in comprehensive education is impressive. The Pedagogic of Caracas can be found with empty classrooms.”

To the lack of biosecurity items such as alcohol, masks, and antibacterial gel, it should be added that in schools the water service is intermittent in the best cases. 95% of public schools in the country have not received any implement that has to do with a biosecurity plan, which makes them deeply vulnerable and unable to effectively follow any protocol to prevent or stop the cases, said Raquel Figueroa. In the practical guide entitled Safe Return to school, Unesco presented the standards for making education in the pandemic a service that meets the status of the human right to education. For Figueroa, none of these considerations have been met in Venezuela. “What is the consecutive program that the State is going to have in order to maintain a disinfection of the campus? Because that’s not only arriving right now, disinfecting and then forgetting everything.”

Nancy Hernández representative of the National Federation of Parents’ Associations and Representatives (Fenasopadres), reiterates that “the Venezuelan Constitution establishes that basic education, from the beginning to the end of secondary education is free and compulsory, but that is not entirely true.” Hernández also explains that “free education implies well-maintained schools, and, the smaller the resources of the citizen who want to access to that school, the school must be in better conditions so that the child feels stimulated to go to a pleasant place, a place that they like, a place that also raises social improvement, because it is a school that gives him all those attributes and is well endowed. The fact that children and teenagers have uniforms, shoes, books of their own and books in the school library, adequate food established according to their age, height and gender, as was established many years ago by the National Institute of Nutrition.”

In countries where the State plans, even in emergency situations all of the provisions of biosecurity can be taken: facilities maintenance, back-to-school is staggered, neither the uniform is a tragedy, nor school supplies or transportation. In Venezuela, all of these are missing in a context of structural poverty. Masks are inaccessible to a very large number of Venezuelans. According to the academic essay by economists Luis Zambrano Sequín and Santiago Sosa based on data from the National Survey of Living Conditions (Encovi), Structure and inequality in household consumption in Venezuela (2020-2021), 91.3% of Venezuelan households are poor according to what they spend. Of this figure, the extreme poor account for 65.7%, while the non-extreme poverty or moderate poverty are the 25.6%. In other words, out of every 100 Venezuelan households, 91 are poor.

In the midst of a Complex Humanitarian Emergency, without sufficient schools and with a high deficit of academically accredited teachers, without alcohol, without a mask or enough space to keep distance, without meals, without a health system that guarantees the integrity of students and staff, the return to school is a drama.

According to Zambrano y Sosa’s essay, ”the profound deterioration in the level of income of the population has forced family groups to concentrate their expenditures on perishable goods and basic necessities.” 96% of households report spending on food, 84% on personal hygiene and 75% on cleaning supplies. On the other hand, the percentage of households that say they spend on other goods and services is very low: only 14.4% spend on clothing, 8.22% on consumption outside the home and 7.94% of households spend on recreation. 0.02% invested in vehicles.

What do the people that cook at home eat

The first reason children don’t go to school is that they don’t eat. That been said by almost seventy-eight percent (78.3%) of the respondents for the Educational Diagnosis of Venezuela (DEV 2021), led by the consultancy DEVTech Systems, in which the Andrés Bello Catholic University participated, and for which a survey of data was made in 400 schools in the country. Children sometimes go to school only if they have a feeding program. The lack of food at home demonstrates the food vulnerability of both students (56.9%) and teachers (38.4%). According to the study, 48.8% of the students said they ate less than three times a day, while about 50% of the teachers reported having lost between 6 and 15 kilos of weight in the last two years.

What students eat the least are protein and teachers consume less vegetables, fruits, carbohydrates and protein. Eight out of 10 teachers said they did not eat the food they needed to meet their caloric demand, and they do not go to school either because they have not received food at home or because they have to devote themselves to look for food. When asked about the reasons for children non-attendance, some responses revealed their degree of poverty: they preferred that they should sleep as long as they wanted so that they could skip a meal.

When Zambrano and Sosa explain in detail the contraction of spending on food, it is evident that this has affected all the items demanded by non-extreme poor households and the non-poor households. In the case of the extreme poor, while there has also been a contraction in average spending, there have been small increases in real spending on beverages, legumes and fresh fruits. The contraction in expenditure for cereals, milk and cheese, oils, fresh vegetables, sugars and condiments was, on average, 30% and 40 %.

In conclusion, the trial points out that, between 2020 and 2021, the increase in inequality in food spending was 18.1%, while in general spending the growth in inequality was 81.3%. Faced with this bleak panorama, the gap in access to food in the country, exacerbated by the shadow of Covid-19, is too large for children and teenagers to continue studying without schools that guarantee at least one meal.

What about school feeding?

The School Feeding Program (PAE) has been one of the flags in terms of social policies of the government, but since 2015 it has been reduced to its minimum expression, both in quantity and nutritional quality, “to the point that, by 2018, there were already 87% of schools where breakfast and fruit delivery were disappearing. There was only lunch left”, says Raquel Figueroa, who adds: “That lunch consisted of rice with some liquid that was prepared with the contributions of the representatives, but chicken no longer arrived, meat no longer arrived”, Figueroa explains. In the first month of the pandemic, the Ministry of Education opened pilot centres to distribute meals. A decision that left almost the entire school population without attention. Then each campus had to make their food, but the quantity was poor and the quality was terrible”. According to Figueroa, “We have contrasted the discourse with reality, and the reality is a totally different thing. That’s why they wanted us to close our Twitter accounts and called our people to order us to shut up.”

In 2020, Encovi found that about 2/3 of the school population had said that the PAE worked in the school where they studied, explains Anitza Freites (head of the Department of Demographic Studies at the Institute of Economic and Social Research of the UCAB and Coordinator of Encovi). Then, when they asked about how often it operated, only 30% of the campuses operated every day and 40% a few times a week. Freites says: “But there was the possibility that many poor students would have a meal a day, with the deficiencies that we know the PAE has. At least you could guarantee basic calories and nutrients, so they won’t go to bed without eating. And for many it could be the best meal of the day.” Already in 2020, only 14% of children and teenagers enrolled in schools reported to Encovi that the PAE continued to operate in their schools, but only 19% of that group operated every day. “There are other campuses that chose to prepare the food, so that they would pick it up and take it home. There is a percentage that had access to food, but it did not work every day and therefore there was also a loss of learning opportunity and access to meals. And those who live far from their school, could hardly pass to pick up their food”, says Anitza Freites.

Between 2019 and 2020 —explains Alexis Ramírez, of the NGO Excubitus— there were 33% of schools without PAE, that is, 8,133 schools did not have this program. Now, in 2021, are 3,491 schools without it. In 2019, 14,800 schools received irregular or insufficient food. “Now, in 2021, 17,000 schools get only rice and lentils, and cornmeal. There are many more under-qualified schools. If we add to this that many schools are feeding not only children but also older adults, the food becomes more insufficient.” Additionally, with regard to the resources of schools to offer the PAE, the DEV 2021 indicates that 90% of schools do not receive the necessary food supplies, but they also lack pots, pans and other utensils, and kitchens and canteens are in a deplorable state.

Where do study the ones that study

Whether at a distance or in the classroom, studying in Venezuela is a complicated goal. It is expected that specialists, theoretically, understand the need to return to the classroom, but at the same time agree that the conditions are too poor in Venezuela, both in coverage and in access, and the very high risks for most of the people.

Anitza Freites explains that, in order to obtain quality information about distance education, Encovi 2020-2021 included questions about the mechanisms through which distance learning activities were developed. The results showed that less than 30% carried out their activities on digital learning platforms through communication between teachers and students, and the rest, 70%, had to go to school to receive instructional guides. Many representatives had to copy by hand or photograph, if they had smartphones, the instructions posted on billboards, because they could not afford the costs of photocopying. This was distance education in the Covid-19 pandemic. But returning to face-to-face learning also presents immense obstacles.

The Educational Diagnosis of Venezuela (DEV), developed by the Andrés Bello Catholic University (UCAB), revealed that three out of 10 schools (31.4%) have at least four essential deficiencies. The most common, and acute, are health services (93.7%), internet (85.7%), theaters or music (up 84.9%), laboratories (79.6 %), electricity (69.9 %), water (56.6%), sport courts (46.8%) and classrooms (17.6%).

One of the most disconcerting findings of the research was what the experts called “ghost schools”: campuses that appear in the data of the Ministry of Education, but of which only some walls remain; the rest of the infrastructure does not exist.

It can’t sound strange then that in the Venezuelan Guajira, according to a journalistic work of Radio Fe y Alegría, for four years the educational institutions in that municipality were robbed. Others are roofless and without desks, and devoured by the undergrowth. One representative reported that the Bellavista II School does not even have a door, and they ripped the bars from the structure to sell them as scrap metal in Maicao, Colombia. That’s why this woman just doesn’t know what to do with her daughter’s education. She said that during the pandemic she was given an assignment and, after two months, she had not been able to deliver it because her school was closed.

Venezuelan schools, in general, have been the object of continuous abandonment and reaching them is an odyssey. And there are teachers in this wayuu territory who walk up to 10 kilometers to get to schools, because they do not have money to pay for public transport: the salary they receive is barely enough to buy flour, rice or sugar.

None of the institutions surveyed by DEV 2021 offer transportation services for teachers and only 1.4% have a route for students. The bulk of the students travel on foot to the schools and the average distance to the nearest stop is 659.13 meters, that is, five and a half soccer fields between the house or school and the stop. Olga Ramos, from the Venezuelan Educational Observatory (OEV), says: “If we had a system like in other countries, where schools are municipalized or the Unesco rule is met, according to which the school can´t be more than four kilometers from where the students live, by virtue of minimizing the use of transport and fuel consumption, perhaps it would be easier to access school food. In Venezuela, young children ride the subway to go to school because they are not municipalized. If you have to travel by transport to go to school, how do you get the little food to those who live 20 kilometers from the school? Impossible. Then, it comes only to those who live nearby.”

A study carried out by the Venezuelan Educational Observatory shows that only two of 12 schools monitored in the Capital District declare that they do not present problems in the water service. The rest report various failures: some spend four to six days without water, while others may be 26 to 28 days a month. All 12 report downturns or interruptions for one or two hours, between 2 and 3 days a week. Four reported internet service. Only three have landline telephony and one reports no failures.

In Miranda state, nine schools were investigated. All have potable water service, however, all of the campuses report failures of 4 to 6 days weekly. In fact, water arrives once or twice a week. Only one school has Internet access and landline telephony. The rest of the schools have none. Five report some clogged drains, although they have sewage system. Only two schools have gas service.

The OEV reports that, in Zulia, of the 13 schools monitored, only six have white water service and only four reported no failures. None of the schools have landline telephony service and only one has internet service, with frequent failures. Four have no electricity due to stolen wiring and transformers, and two report service, but only in certain areas. Of six schools that report sewage, four reported no failures. Of the four schools that report having gas, only one has service failures. The eight who claim to have access to public transport warn that it is scarce, infrequent and in poor condition.

In this scenario, with a stampede of teachers migrating to other jobs and other countries, teachers are scarce. For this school year the total staff reached 502,700 teachers, that is, 166 thousand teachers less (-25%) than the 699 thousand who worked in the schools and high schools of the country for the year 2018, is evidenced in the DEV.

A drop of love is not enough

The State’s debt to education is old and cumulative. Only the mythical 1,500 school cities offered by the government on June 17, 2015 in an agreement with China that were never built account for a failed management, tied to an unreal speech. As there are no reports and accounts since 2016, it is difficult to know if that money actually arrived, what happened to that agreement, and much less with the 1,500 “school cities” that would be built in a span of 10 years, of which 30 would be built in 2015. The government said that it had been decided to build the first 30 school cities and for that special funding would be received. “School cities are going to receive children from babies, then they are going to develop their comprehensive elementary school and their high school. In addition, the company ZTE Corporation and Huawei have provided the entire technological structure.”

The educational cities of that future that still doesn’t arrive would be located in each parish of all the Venezuelan states. ”We have managed to sign the technical and financial agreement to take that step that will allow us to measure construction processes to begin to multiply it in the years to come.” Bolivarian school cities, which would have gyms and theaters, never arrived. In 2017, Elías Jaua, then Minister of Education, reported two years later the construction of the educational cities, a copy of Chinese schools, but in Venezuela the project never materialized. Between 2019-2020 Aristóbulo Isturiz did not even mention it and of that promise only a few models remained.

In October 2021, after the first 15 days of school, several campuses had already closed because Covid-19 arrived at the school. Several schools in the states of Zulia, Lara, Sucre and Bolívar recorded positive cases of COVID-19 that filled the community with fear. Cases of students, teachers and relatives of infected students led principals to make the drastic decision to close schools and led parents not to send their children to classes. According to Venezuelan newspaper Crónica Uno, on October 25, the day of the official reinstatement, school absenteeism ranged from 70% to 90%. The fear of the pandemic and the terrible conditions for returning to school, based on real figures, are stronger than the desire to study.