Photo: Sofia Jaimes Barreto, over a Reuters picture.

Why Schools Haven’t Reopened in Venezuela

We celebrate World Education Day while the government uses the pandemic to disencumber itself from a pile of accumulated wrongdoings after years of mismanagement in the area—and now with an additional catastrophe

On Monday, March 16th, 2020, the government suspended in-person classes in Venezuela. Today, according to UNESCO, Venezuela is one of only six countries in the entire American continent (and 33 worldwide) where schools are completely closed. And what we have instead of classes doesn’t even come close to replacing classroom learning.

The 2019-2020 school year ended under direction of the Education Ministry’s Cada Familia, Una Escuela plan. It called for homes to turn into schools, without qualified teachers or technological tools to embark on a new teaching-learning mode, different from face-to-face education. A combination of improvised remote and home learning was put in place which, at best, ended up being “homework overload”.

The ministry’s plan was repeated this school year, without properly evaluating the past experience for adjustments, considering the country’s harsh reality (64.8% of homes live in poverty). “We’ll see if we go back in January,” Maduro said in September 2020, regarding a partial in-person schooling modality. In January 2021, the possibility was postponed to February; in February, it was moved to March, and in March, to April. And now, who knows when regular classes will resume, with the Brazilian variant of COVID-19 spreading through Venezuela.

The suspension of partial in-person classes for the time being is a necessary step, when we consider that school communities are exposed to coronavirus infection in a context where the public health care system’s collapsing and private health care’s very expensive. But this also comes from the government’s unwise decision to allow free movement across the country during December and the Carnival holidays.

After one year of coronavirus in Venezuela, schools are in the same position they were in March 2020: there are no plans for a proper return, and no plans for the needed adjustments.

The Pandemic Is But One of a Thousand Problems

There were a few days when schools were actually open in Venezuela in 2020. 

On October 25th and November 15th, they opened for the December 6th pre-election drills and opened again on election day. Biosafety protocols were carried out then, made possible thanks to a 60 million dollar investment to buy 29,662 new voting machines.

So millions were available for schools to go ahead with elections, and not for students to sit at their desks. Fifty thousand water tanks, of ten thousand liters each, could have been purchased with those funds, so that fifty thousand schools would have running water for four days a weekwith rationed use for 300 students.

Venezuela can’t even manage to come up with a possible return date. After all, if schools are closed, millions are saved and problems are dodged.

With the exception of those three days, the government has insisted on keeping schools closed, while most countries in Latin America have moved forward with partial and gradual reopenings, both in urban and rural areas, with the right choices, the wrong choices, replanning, fear, hope, and the need to build more bathrooms. Venezuela can’t even manage to come up with a possible return date. After all, if schools are closed, millions are saved and problems are dodged.

Because the government must also solve, among many emergencies, the fuel and diesel shortage issue to reactivate the public transport system, and the cash availability problem to pay for it, or folks just won’t be able to reach the schools. Running water must also be guaranteed, to at least comply with the universal safety rule of washing hands, and meals with the nutritional requirements by the Programa de Alimentación Escolar must now be prepared for pickup or delivery only. The sanitary equipment, and the biosafety and cleaning tools must be available. In order for the most basic education to take place, teachers in public schools must have decent working conditions, which were demanded yet again on the January 15th protest, on the national Teacher’s Day.

Those demands are still unmet, including the humanitarian bonus for the education sector proposed by Guaidó. While it may not save teachers from poverty, it does help: 40% of teachers from public schools resigned in 2019, either to leave the country or to move on to other trades, according to the Federación Venezolana de Maestros (Venezuelan Teachers Federation). These desertions will continue if conditions aren’t improved.

It’s not easy and the government makes everything harder. For example: last March, the Education Ministry announced that salaries would be paid for teachers of the 831 schools subscribed to the agreement between the ministry and the Asociación Venezolana de Educación Católica (AVEC), all through the Patria system’s digital walletwhere not all teachers are registered, not all of those who are registered have access to the platform, and the payment itself would take between one and three working days to be available, if it actually goes through.

Maduro reversed the ministry’s decision in the end and new conditions were established in the MPPE-AVEC agreement. Just to mention a few: retired teachers won’t receive the law benefits and will have a maximum amount of hours to work per week, while pedagogical advisors and deans won’t be paid at all, since those positions aren’t included in the ministry’s structure. Just like that, 31 years of agreements and vocation by many teachers who have been working for under four dollars a month were erased from the board.

There are just too many things to solve so that, in April or any other month this year, the 24,411 public schools, which represent 83% of schools in Venezuela, reopen for their 6,442,297 studentsand then for the 5,001 private schools to reopen for their 1,222,572 pupils. In that order: first public schools and then the private ones, otherwise we’d be increasing the educational gap in the country. 

The solution has been to establish policies that slow down the development of private schools without improving the public ones.

The Year That Ruined the Educational Routine

A few weeks ago, deputy Juan Díaz made the news after saying aloud a grammatical error in Spanish, with the wrong conjugation of the verb volver (“La juventud que ha salido de Venezuela por alguna razón y que ha volvido…”). A minor mistake, if you pay attention to what he said right before, with so much pride: “Over 1,700,000 students are receiving online lessons thanks to the technological mechanisms the Bolivarian revolution has, in twenty years, built.” Truth is, that’s a very low stat. At least 4,742,297 students from registered schools are missing from that tally, along with many, many Canaimita laptops. By 2018, only 978,310 had been handed out to students.

Pre-school, special education, and indigenous communities need personalized attention which is only possible with the teacher’s constant observation, and in our most remote regions, education is only possible in a classroom.

The National Association of Private Education Institutions has suggested a decentralization of the ministry’s decision-making process, so a partial in-person mode, by tiers, reopening can be decided by each school, depending on how the virus is behaving in their context and their available safety protocols. This proposal entails integration with the official epidemiological information and the regional governing bodies, as well as with communities.

For their part, the Mothers, Fathers and Representatives Network (Red de Madres, Padres y Representantes) has designed a basic protocol for the safe reopening of schools and talks with updated pediatric and epidemiological information, as well as suggestions so that, starting now, the efforts made by school communities are efficient. The idea to adapt the Spanish bubble model, by the U.E. Mariano Picón Salas in Nueva Esparta, is relevant as a proven experience, possible in small schools and states where the spread of the virus has been low.

But the year came and went and in many households the education routine has been lost, or it was never actually achieved. Pre-school, special education, and indigenous communities need personalized attention which is only possible with the teacher’s constant observation, and in our most remote regions, education is only possible in a classroom.

Venezuela is a country with an extreme poverty rate of 79.3% (according to 2019-2020’s ENCOVI report), and where schools are still places that provide protection, guarantee the human and constitutional right to education, and contribute to eradicate poverty, in spite of all their structural shortcomings.

Sanitary measures don’t answer to the epidemiological reality, either: “If we’re all vaccinated, we can return (to school),” Maduro said in early March, suggesting the return in April. But “all” means twenty eight million citizens, and so far, we know that only a hundred thousand teachers would be vaccinated. Without a nationwide immunization plan that tells us how many have been vaccinated, how many will be, and when they will be, schools won’t open.

In the meantime, the education catastrophe spreads: thirty weeks without in-person classes means the loss of a whole school year. We’re on week 39: 16 last year and 23 this year.

Kaoru Yonekura

Venezuelan writer and the winner of the Gabo Foundation Journalism for Solutions scholarship.