By Patrizia Troccoli
In September, after 19 months of online classes, the Venezuelan government announced a plan to have Venezuelan children return to in-person school by October 25. While many educational advocates and experts celebrated the return to in-person classes, teachers and school staff paint a grim picture of this year’s back to school season. Lockdowns, the rising cost of transportation and a sharp decrease in educational investment have greatly complicated the return to in-person schooling in Venezuela.
The governmental plan “Una gota de amor para mi escuela” (A droplet of love for my school) aimed at restocking schools before classes began, failed to materialise in many schools. In the schools where aid was distributed, teachers complain of its insufficiency and irrelevance, noting in particular the lack of basic personal protective equipment. Additionally, lack of investment over the years has led to severe infrastructure damage, with 95% of schools reporting infrastructural problems. In Anzoategui, a state in Eastern Venezuela, 80% of schools do not conform to the necessary safety standards that a school must have to be deemed fit to hold children, reported Maira Martin, the head of the teacher’s union in the state. In addition to a lack of governmental investment on infrastructure, teachers also report a lack of basic pedagogical material such as pens, pencils and papers. Most worryingly, reports show that 85% of schools did not receive foodstuffs and have therefore been forced to stop providing meals. This is a concerning development given the fact that several educational studies have discovered that meal provision is a vital tool when it comes to combating truancy and absenteeism. Given the high cost of transportation and the difficulty in accessing school facilities, many parents only find it feasible to send their kids to school if a meal is being provided. Under these extreme circumstances, Raquel Figueroa, head of the largest union of Venezuelan teachers, reports that around 50% of educators have decided to quit teaching altogether, and attributed this to teachers feeling disheartened by the fact that their pay does not even cover the basic cost of transportation to and from their workplace and that the schools where they work are grossly mismanaged. As of October 26, Figueroa reports that according to the union’s estimates only about 30% of the student body showed up for school.
Lockdowns worsened the conditions of school facilities, with staff reporting the theft of key educational material. I interviewed Lily (name changed to preserve anonymity), the head of a preschool located in the outskirts of the city of Caracas that serves 80 children ages 2 to 6. Lily has been trying hard to keep her school afloat. “I kept coming to do administrative work even during the lockdowns, it helped me stay focused and it sent a signal to others to keep out” she tells me. While Lily’s strategy was successful in preventing theft, she reports that her school has been grossly understocked for years now : “We used to provide three meals a day: breakfast, a midday snack and then lunch but in the past few years the food supply has diminished significantly”. By the time the pandemic came around, the preschool was offering only one mid-morning snack and since the school year started Lily reports that she has not received any food to help restock the cafeteria. “It is truly disheartening, we have asked for the collaboration of parents but honestly very few parents can spare a cookie or some juice for their kids to eat midday, I am already seeing some children who are dropping out or coming less often as a result of this.” In addition to the food provision problem, Lily reports the ministry’s failures to provide any basic educational material: “We lack any and all types of resources pedagogical, recreational, practical.” She also claims many teachers are discouraged by the situation: “During the lockdowns when classes were virtual, teachers were saving money on transportation and virtuality enabled them to supplement their income through side gigs. As soon as they announced that we were supposed to go back to in person teaching I started receiving notices from my staff that they would not be joining us back this year.” Through this difficult situation, Lily has remained committed to maintaining a basic standard of education. “Preschool is such a vital stage for children, and this is the only early childhood education facility in the area” she says. However, gross mismanagement and high transportation costs are making her work particularly challenging this year.
Amidst the economic and political crisis in Venezuela, schools had served as havens- places where children could continue to learn and explore; however the increasing mismanagement of schools threatens the ability of schools to continue serving this vital role. Furthermore, depriving children of these resources during their early childhood risks perpetuating the economic and political crisis, furthering inequalities in numeracy, literacy and socio-emotional development.
Patrizia Troccoli is a first year masters student in international relations/political science where she intends to study the social effects of democratic backsliding. Patrizia is originally from Caracas, Venezuela. Follow her on Instagram at @itsalwayspatty.
Image of children in a school in Mesa Arriba, Trujillo in western Venezuela taken from Wikimedia Commons.