This is an adaptation of an article originally published in Plaza Pública as COVID19: La educación a distancia en un país con poco internet
On Saturday, March 14, Guatemalan president Alejandro Giammattei temporarily shuttered all schools until Monday, April 13, the day after Holy Week. This emergency measure, similar to those taken in other countries around the world, seeks to insulate schools from becoming yet another hotspot for contagion.
The move has brought the studies of roughly 3 million children and adolescents receiving a public education to an abrupt halt. As the date for resuming in-person learning approaches, public school teachers are confirming that the Ministry of Education (MINEDUC) is ill equipped to lead a nationwide transition to distance learning, especially if social-distancing directives are extended beyond April 13.
Distance-learning without internet
A local teacher in San Pedro Necta, Huehuetenango told Plaza Pública that the only option for at-home learning in her community was to pass out the school’s short supply of textbooks, leaving instructions for parents on readings and exercises that children can do from home.
“How does the government want classes to continue online when students have no Internet?” she asked. “I know my community; it’s rare to find a family here with a TV or radio.”
Conducting virtual classes from home is simply not an option for rural youth. Just 19 percent of those over seven years old have access to a phone, computer, and Internet, and most of these select few are located in urban centers like Guatemala City (8.75 percent of all) and Quetzaltenango (1.21 percent), according to the 2018 National Survey of Living Conditions conducted by the National Institute of Statistics.
Furthermore, only 17 percent of all Guatemalan households—over half of these in Guatemala City—have Internet access. In contrast, 70 percent—some 2.3 million households—primarily rely on television for information.
Just as in San Pedro Necta, a teacher in Santa Bárbara, Huehuetenango says there is no Internet in his community, and few families have a TV or radio. They distributed printed materials through the parent-teacher associations so that students can complete some exercises remotely.
“Students can call me with any questions, but most don’t. Some send me paid texts asking to call them,” he said. MINEDUC offers him no help, he admitted, to foot the costs of communicating with his students on his personal phone plan.
The decades-long erosion of public education
In 2019, 2.9 million children and adolescents attended the public school system—almost three-quarters of all enrolled Guatemalan youth, according to MINEDUC. In addition, 84 percent of all elementary school students attend public school. Today, the Covid-19 crisis has sent all of them home indefinitely.
Bienvenido Argueta, an education consultant, academic, and former minister of education under president Álvaro Colom, claims the school closures were a necessary measure, given that the government’s chief concern should be shielding the population from infection.
That said, given the current structure of the school year, MINEDUC lacks the resources to adequately meet students’ emerging needs this school year. “These are the consequences of the weakening of public education undertaken by the Ministry of Education since the Álvaro Arzú administration,” claimed Argueta, referring to the former president of Guatemala from 1996 to 2000. “Just like in the public health system, a move toward privatization has dominated the field of education,” he continued.
According to Argueta, the long-term push for privatization has prevented public educational institutions and their students from acquiring new technology. Despite certain targeted efforts, most of the student body lacks access to textbooks, let alone the computers, tablets, and smartphones required to attend virtual classes.
“Yet again, private schools are offering the best opportunities,” said Argueta of education during the pandemic, adding that students in urban centers with electronic devices have a clear advantage in adapting to remote learning.
Learning is tough without the hardware
Fe y Alegría (Faith and Joy) is a private organization servicing sixteen thousand children and adolescents in 53 schools across 19 municipalities. Like many other non-governmental organizations providing services to those at risk of poverty and violence, its services are at increasing risk under the pandemic.
Miquel Cortés, program director and priest, claims that the organization formed a commission at the onset of the crisis, to adapt its pedagogy and guarantee continuity in its student services.
“There are different levels of access to electronic devices and the Internet among our students,” Cortés commented. “We’ve set up virtual learning environments with educational content such as videos, worksheets, and study guides,” he continued.
According to Cortés, enlisting parents to supervise students’ work has been essential to this new learning model. Their biggest challenge, though, is reaching students without the proper devices and Internet access. With this group, they have had to lean on the government’s online educational resources, which are also transmitted on local television and radio stations.
They then conduct outreach on the ground, equipping vehicles with loudspeakers to travel to communities without electricity and announce the arrival of educational resources, offer instructions and explain content. “We’re concerned about education, but for now our top priority is tending to families’ health and financial needs,” he explained.
Broader horizons at private schools
Private schools are better able to continue their classes remotely; many have taken advantage of internet-based platforms to press on with their learning modules.
While few private schools teach elementary school, which deals with students from seven to 14 years old, the proportion of students attending private school in the upper grades is far greater. In 2019, for example, private schools took in 37 percent of elementary schoolers and 70 percent of students in the upper grades.
Diana Brown, executive director of the Association of Private Colleges, a network of 145 schools, explains that they adapted their curriculum to digital platforms for the duration of the school closures.
“It’s not that we were totally ready, but we anticipated this crisis,” said Brown. “We’ve established communication through email, social media, and free virtual platforms to develop course content, and to the extent possible, we’ve been able to do so.”
Current circumstances require a great degree of flexibility, but even so, the association’s primary task is ensuring curriculum development and student growth and learning.
Each institution will report its curriculum development methodology to MINEDUC’s departmental leadership, Brown outlined, adding that they plan to issue a diagnostic test to students when classes resume to evaluate students’ learning gaps.
Pushing back the school year
When Giammattei suspended class for three weeks, he reassured schools that they could make up for lost instruction time in the future. Argueta sees extending the current school year to November or December as the only option to do so, given MINEDUC’s inability to fully implement distance learning.
Brown says the private sector is willing to follow the government’s lead in extending their own school year, but argues that schools should go further, cutting out midyear vacations that usually take place for one or two weeks in June or July.
Argueta emphasizes preserving core skills, such as basic mathematics, reading comprehension, communication, and language arts (with an emphasis on maternal language). To that end, schools should decide which learning materials are essential for student learning, while keeping in mind how MINEDUC can distribute them.
“The government should share videos, learning guides, and worksheets, for example, through all the outlets at its disposal, including television, radio, and print. That said, distributing textbooks is most important,” asserted Argueta.
But as the present crisis wanes and classes resume, the task of shielding both classroom and household from Covid-19 will continue unabated.
“They’ll need to renovate schools to ensure that the student body at least has access to soap and water,” alluded Argueta.
*Translated by Roman Gressier