Bolivia has been through the wringer over the past year, from contested elections and the flight of its ex-president to the arrival of COVID-19 and the challenges of online learning. But since early August, Bolivian parents are facing a new dilemma: no school, at all. Full stop.

Only about 25% of the country’s households have broadband internet, and continuing digital classes was unrealistic, the government argued. The rest of the school year, which typically ends in November, was canceled, though public school teachers still receive their salary, and many continue trying to reach out to students. There are targeted efforts to reach children in secluded Indigenous communities, and nonprofit groups are attempting to bridge the education gap with lessons, too. But many parents and observers are concerned about long-term effects.

“The pandemic lifted a veil on the historic disparities that still exist in Bolivia,” says Lina Beltrán, chief of education for UNICEF Bolivia. She notes that the longer students are out of school, the more likely they are to drop out entirely. “The learning losses also threaten to extend beyond this generation and erase decades of progress,” she adds.

Mexico City

Four kids. One cellphone. No internet.

That was the distance-learning setup for José Luis Torrez’s family in Tilata, Bolivia, a town on the outskirts of La Paz, at the start of the pandemic. “We were blowing through our savings” to buy phone credit, says Mr. Torrez, who runs a mechanic’s garage. But in early August, not long after a neighbor helped Mr. Torrez set up a Wi-Fi connection, Bolivia’s department of education canceled the rest of the school year.

Ever since schooling moved online last spring, just a month after classes started in the Southern Hemisphere, millions of Bolivians without access to the internet or electronic devices struggled to keep their children learning and engaged. The government argued that continuing digital classes through November, typically the end of the school year, was simply unrealistic – pointing to disagreements with the teachers union, its inability to provide universal education online, and the public-health danger of in-person classes. 

“Just like any parent, our dream is for the kids to achieve more and go further than their parents,” says Mr. Torrez, whose children range from 4 to 12 years old. “I always hoped they’d become professionals.”

“After this,” he says with a sad laugh, “Bolivia’s best hope may be for a generation of mediocre professionals.” 

Bolivia has been through the wringer over the past year: From a contested presidential election, nationwide political protests, and the flight of its leftist ex-president, to a right-wing caretaker government that has postponed new elections, and the arrival of COVID-19. The political unrest and presidential elections promised for next month have created an additional layer of uncertainty. Although nongovernmental organizations, individual teachers, international organizations, and even the Ministry of Education are trying to bridge the schooling gap, many observers and parents are concerned about the well-being of Bolivia’s children – and the future of the nation.

“Imagine the implications of having six months without any type of instruction,” says Gustavo Sever, the director of a private school in Cochabamba. “Not having the continuity of formal education – whether virtual or not – is huge. You create a discrepancy and create gaps between the world and the students in this country,” he says. As a private school, Mr. Sever’s institution is still offering online courses, though nearly 60% of parents withdrew their children, in many cases due to economic hardship, once the academic year became optional.

The government says all students will be promoted to the next academic year, regardless of grades or attendance.

“It’s a child’s right to access education and it’s the responsibility of the state to provide that,” Mr. Sever says.

Continental challenge

Only about 25% of Bolivian households had broadband internet in 2016, well below the Latin American average of 45%, according to the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean. A 2018 report by Bolivia’s Agency for Electronic Government and Information and Communication Technologies found only 42% of Bolivians have access to a computer and 10% have fixed internet. In rural areas the numbers are ever more extreme: 19% and 3%, respectively.

“The vast majority of rural areas don’t have internet,” Yerko Núñez, a government minister, said in August when clarifying the decision to end the school year early. “There’s no other option than to close out the year.”

The Ministry of Education did not respond to written request for comment.

“The pandemic lifted a veil on the historic disparities that still exist in Bolivia,” says Lina Beltrán, chief of education for UNICEF Bolivia.

“When education systems collapse, [peaceful], prosperous and productive societies are undermined,” Ms. Beltrán writes in an email. “The learning losses also threaten to extend beyond this generation and erase decades of progress, not least in support of girls and young women’s educational access and retention.” She notes that the longer students are out of school, the more likely they are to drop out entirely, and estimates the closures could decrease affected students’ future earnings by 8% to 10%.

Plenty of Latin American countries struggle with internet access. But Bolivia is the only one to use it as a reason to halt education entirely.

Mexico deployed pre-recorded, televised classes featuring trained actors and teachers to reach its estimated 30 million public school students. It’s not a perfect model for learning, says Gabriel Sánchez Zinny, an expert on Latin American education. But it’s a success in terms of the government trying to reach the most vulnerable.

“TV may not be the best, but it’s certainly better than nothing,” says Mr. Zinny, the former education minister for the province of Buenos Aires. “Governments aren’t making enough of an effort to create opportunities and share knowledge” during the pandemic.

Peru, Chile, Colombia, and Brazil have incorporated some televised education into their distance learning approaches, as well. The Dominican Republic has expanded free access to internet hotspots across the country and teamed up with a cellphone company to offer internet plans at special prices. In Buenos Aires, government institutions already delivering meals to vulnerable children are also printing out school materials for students without access to computers or printers.

“Kids are desperate to do work”

In Bolivia, public school teachers are still receiving their salaries, and many are still making an effort to send students materials, parents say. Some educators put on superhero costumes to try and keep their students motivated online, while others travel house to house to try to keep their most isolated students looped in. There are targeted efforts to reach children in secluded Indigenous communities, like radio education programs that UNICEF estimates reach more than 6,000 children. The United Nations organization also teamed up with cellphone provider Tigo Bolivia to provide teacher trainings for online instruction, counseling for students, and other resources for not just learning but staying healthy during the pandemic.

For Alicia Layme, the pandemic has been a blur of stress. Her husband, a construction worker, lost his job. Her family, complete with an 8-month-old baby, 8-year-old, and 10-year-old, have been forced to move twice due to evictions over late rent payments.

“We don’t know what to do. We can’t cry anymore,” Ms. Layme says. “These schools don’t recognize the realities for so many of us.” Many students didn’t have a chance to buy their books for the academic year before Bolivia mandated a quarantine. She doesn’t have a smartphone, and before classes were called off, her kids’ teachers were frustrated that she couldn’t receive photos of assignments and print them out. Her kids told her she’s not their teacher when she tried to help them through tough homework.

But Ms. Layme says her family is fortunate in some respects. A local initiative run by the international NGO Bolivia Kids and the local Sariry Foundation delivers food and psychological support to communities surrounding La Paz. Roughly 30 families, or 70 kids, have weekly visits from three foundation staff who give informal lessons on the street in front of participants’ homes.

“Kids are desperate to do work,” says Elisa Aguilar, director of programs and community development for Bolivia Kids. On top of connectivity challenges, many parents don’t have enough education themselves to help their children with schoolwork. Staff members walk from house to house – there’s no public transportation running in the area – delivering printouts or giving lessons.

“I think we’re going to see a lot of kids dropping out of school next year – nationwide,” Ms. Aguilar says. “We’re trying to help in the ways we can, but at a certain point, we all feel powerless.”

Ms. Layme can relate.

“Parents are told we have to make sacrifices for our kids,” she says. “What does that even mean at this point? Am I supposed to steal phone credit so that my child can keep learning?”

Ms. Layme says the distance education situation was bad, “but there are alternatives to closing schools or doing it online.” 

“The government just needed to try.”

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