Venezuelan Schools Restart in a Void

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

Photo: Reuters

“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.”

Joelvin Villarreal studies Political Science at the Rafael Urdaneta University, and lives in western Maracaibo, Zulia. As the quarantine advanced, some of his neighbors turned to him to help their children or grandchildren with Math or Physics. He worked with eight teenagers from public and private schools and “They sent study guides consisting of problems and exercises through WhatsApp, but they didn’t get lessons. I’d study and solve them, and then I’d go to their houses and explain how it was done. Then they sent the answers to their teachers.”

Others are a little more worried about their learning. Mirian Sánchez is a mechanical engineer and she has lived off assisted homework and teaching Physics and Math for over 20 years: “Some teachers from private high schools would hand out a list of exercises for their students, between 20 and 50 exercises depending on the teacher. The students had to do research and solve the problems, but many times it turned out to be an overwhelming task. What ended up happening most of the time was that parents paid someone to solve the study guides but there was little time left to explain the procedure. Most of the time, my phone would collapse with homework and sending answers; you have to put yourself in the teacher’s shoes with over 30 students per classroom. Many parents contacted me to give lessons to their kids, since they realized they hadn’t learned anything, but because of the fuel shortage it couldn’t be done.”

Adriana Martínez is a teacher and agronomist. She teaches Physics and Biology in a private school and offers private tutoring. “After school was suspended, it was difficult to adapt the curriculum of certain practical subjects, because you have to explain the procedures. We’ve looked for tools throughout the internet, we’ve used videos. For this school year we’ve been given courses and workshops for distance learning. But we didn’t foresee the electricity problem growing,” says Adriana. “It hasn’t been easy in my case, because I’m 56 years old, and while it’s been an uphill battle, it’s been rewarding. The students themselves have suggested the best platforms for online teaching. WhatsApp has been a great tool because you don’t need that much bandwidth. But now we’re going to use Google Suite for them to upload their work, whenever the internet is available, of course. That’s why we have to be more flexible with deadlines.”

In Adriana’s experience, many students who used to have discipline problems in the classroom, were the first ones to hand in their work because they know how to use technology better. “This is teaching us that we have to reconsider prohibiting phones in the classroom. The question one has to ask is how schools will be when the pandemic is over. It can’t be the same as before, teaching with a marker and a whiteboard and that’s it, because kids will demand change. We have to keep using technology,” she says.

Adriana believes that public schools could have done a better job because many students received a small Canaima computer (handed out by the state) and teachers were given tablets. At least in Nueva Esparta, these resources haven’t been included or considered for distance learning, because they were thought out for in-person classes with a tutor, and they don’t work without an internet connection.

After class was suspended at José’s school, the teacher took a photo of the notebook with all the planning and the kids had to copy the lessons from their phones; some parents had trouble understanding the teacher’s handwriting, so from then on she sent photos from the books with the scheduled topics, so the children could copy and do the activities straight from the book. Therefore, the parents ended up being the tutors. María, the teacher, says that in this sense “Family was very important. It would’ve been impossible any other way.”

Rodolfo González, a retired teacher and former coordinator for extracurricular activities such as the Science Olympics, considers that the government is using the andragogic (education for adults) system in elementary and high schools, where it doesn’t work because unlike children and teens, the adult person has finished their social upbringing, they are disciplined and they know what they want. When they’re at school, students interact with friends, they go to learn new knowledge but they also learn to defend themselves. The school environment is necessary. When that’s gone, the home becomes more relevant. From the teacher’s point of view, he says that they would’ve preferred to have the kids sent to school even with the pandemic going on, “because we were trained to teach children in a classroom following a routine; anything that affects that routine destabilizes the way we work.”

However, there are other factors to consider, like your salary being insufficient to buy a pen and notebook, or a pair of shoes or decent clothes. We’re talking about a destabilized system that will remain broken after the pandemic.

The 2020-2021 school year begins in a very atypical way and chances are that it will end the same. Meanwhile there’s an individual effort by the teachers to fulfil their mission despite the circumstances, which isn’t new after years of being used to teaching by self-management.

What will school be like after the pandemic? Maybe a desolate space, like José said, or maybe they’ll reopen thanks to the many heroes who refuse to give up.