Venezuelan schools restart in a void

Photo: Reuters

 

Teachers who don’t show up, parents forced to hire private tutors, online education without electricity or internet…the pandemic intensifies all the troubles of teaching in our country.

By Caracas ChroniclesRoselis González Rosas

Oct 13, 2020

“Let’s go see my school!” says José, as he pedals his bike down the lonely main street in his town in Margarita island. Wearing his facemask, sweat dripping down his body and escorted by his mom, the 11-year-old, set to start the 6th grade, peeks through the gates that surround the public school.

“Everything’s so lonely, why is that?”

We already know he won’t go back to school this year. The end of the 2019-2020 school year was ruined by improvisation by the government, which could have anticipated the arrival of COVID-19 into the country, and could have prepared to deal with it without so much anguish for teachers, students, and parents.

Venezuelan teachers are once again asking parents for cleaning products, including mops, brooms, lightbulbs, and even padlocks and door locks.

Now that the new school year is starting, Venezuelan teachers are once again asking parents for cleaning products, including mops, brooms, lightbulbs, and even padlocks and door locks. What’s different this year? First of all, the janitors refuse to show up so they don’t lose the “alternate” jobs they had to get in order to survive. Second, teachers won’t have to go to school every day during this first term because of the quarantine, which allows them to sort out their financial problems with other jobs, from selling bread and working in construction sites, to cleaning houses.

“At the start of the school year, at least in my high school, out of 40 teachers only five showed up,” says María, vice-principal of a high school affiliated to the Ministry of Education and a supporter of chavismo. “Some students have been coming and others justify themselves with the conditions that increase the risk of COVID-19, so they won’t be coming in even during flexible weeks. The janitors still haven’t come so we have to clean up the classroom ourselves.”

COVID-19 became a screen to hide the reality that we all know in regards to education in Venezuela. It should be pointed out that if the pandemic hadn’t existed, many more teachers would have left their posts all the same. “If it weren’t for the pandemic, we’d be on strike,” says the vice-principal of a school affiliated to the Governor’s Office of Nueva Esparta State. “In my household, we have to collect my mom (a retired teacher) and dad’s salaries and mine in order to buy one medicine. I’ve been teaching for 29 years, I have a Masters’ degree, and a young teacher at a private school earns way more than I do. Good for her, but unfair for me. What was the point of studying so much? I would’ve been better off selling fish.”

On Monday, October 5th, on International Teachers’ Day, Fetramagisterio organized a protest all across the country demanding vindication for educators, because the government owes the sector a 280% salary increase.

In a communiqué published in September, the union explained that it isn’t just a struggle for a fair salary, but also for a whole set of benefits that were agreed on, and chavismo didn’t keep its word. They took away their hospitalization, surgery and maternity insurance and funeral services, and they don’t have assistance from the educators’ social security institute anymore. In Sucre, over 2,500 teachers didn’t come to work because they were protesting.

Linda’s a teacher in an elementary school dependent on the Education Ministry, where she’s seen as escuálida (a pejorative way of calling those in the opposition) because she always participates in protests organized by unions and she’s always complained about the salary. “If they call on us to start school, I’ll invoke the pandemic: no one can force me to go,” she claims. “I have health risk factors. I haven’t put in a medical leave because I only have to go every two weeks, but if a child can’t read I’ll send him an activity so the parents teach him. In the last school year, not all the parents had a smartphone, I don’t know how they managed to finish the activities. In the end, I graded the children so they could pass based on the knowledge that I have of each of them, but I didn’t give anyone an A because I couldn’t review their learning.”

In Margarita, schools and high schools have given their staff freedom to come up with their own timetable. They have to come into school once or twice a week during the flexible week of quarantine, meaning every 15 days. At that time, they can guide the parents on whatever they need; in some schools the teachers that live within the community have accepted to receive the notebooks of those children who don’t have the technological resources for distance learning, so that they can assign the activities for the following two weeks. They must also post on a board outside the classroom the planning for the next fifteen days. This is the means of communication for those students (and teachers) who don’t have cell phones or computers, or those who do but can’t use them on an island with electricity rationing.

On their part, parents send “photographic evidence” of the children studying or doing their homework, just like the schools asked last year. Alberto, for instance, is now in his junior year in public high school. “I passed all my classes; the teachers sent the school work via email and I’d send it back to them. But this year they haven’t sent us anything yet. We haven’t started.” José’s school did start. César Malavé, an advisor for Fetramagisterio, explains that this disparity follows the attitude taken by school boards and teachers of each institution, based on union leadership, which in Nueva Esparta is eroded at the moment.

In the first two weeks, in elementary school, the students received revision exercises for language and mathematics, via WhatsApp. Some had to take turns borrowing notebooks. José’s teacher also informed them through WhatsApp that the TV show on state-owned educational station Vive TV, Cada familia una escuela, will continue to be available, although the activities shown there aren’t mandatory.

Private Tutoring Hour

Assisted homework and private tutoring have always existed in the country, but after classes were suspended because of the quarantine, they took on another shape.

Teachers or facilitators became private tutors who came in to fill the void left by an education system that was taken by surprise. This also allowed evaluations with a feedback system where tutors can verify the teaching and learning process.

They must explain the content to children and teenagers, especially for classes like Math, Physics, and Chemistry. They must go online to find books and tutorials in order to help the kids with their activities. In the case of a public high school, the teachers limited themselves to sending a series of exercises which were prepared by the Ministry, without guides to help solve them.

What mattered the most for some students was just to pass, and many of these tutors were there to support them in that goal. José Marín is a retired Chemistry teacher. He says that the class suspension forced him into private tutoring to improve his income. “I would estimate how long it would take me to do the student’s work and charge a dollar per hour. The student was interested in passing, but not learning, except in a few cases. To avoid feeling that I was being unethical, I would explain the material, assuming that the teacher would ask where the results came from.”

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