As Peru opens from the pandemic, almost all schools remain closed

Lima Peru – For María Molina, a single mother struggling to care for her two granddaughters, the idea that Peru’s public schools have been providing online learning during the pandemic feels like a bad joke.

He can barely afford his monthly 10-gigabyte mobile phone plan, which costs 75 soles ($ 19). It is the only phone the family has and should be shared by their 17-year-old daughter, who is studying nursing, and her two granddaughters, Azumi, 8, and Chenely, 11.

“My daughter is the priority. It has to be, ”says Molina, 56, who works as a freelance makeup salesperson. “Azumi and Chenely haven’t been to school, not even online, since the pandemic started.”

“The school keeps saying they will give us tablets, but they never do. Sometimes the plan runs out with a week to go. So that’s it for the rest of the month. Nobody can study anything. “

Molina adds that she can make ends meet only because one of her 22-year-old sons, who still lives with her in their single-room shack, shares his earnings as a day laborer.

“He is a good son. Thank God, ”says Molina. “Without him, we wouldn’t even eat.”

María Molina helping her granddaughters Azumi and Chenely to study at Norma Huamani’s house [Al Jazeera]

Here in this rough neighborhood of María del Triunfo, on the steep and dusty eastern fringes of Lima, largely populated by migrants from the Andes and the Amazon, this story is all too familiar.

Schools in Peru closed completely when the coronavirus pandemic exploded globally in mid-March 2020, just two weeks after the school year began in the south.

Although a small number of remote rural schools have had face-to-face classes since then, and a handful of well-resourced private schools and public schools have started serving students two half days a week this month, about 99 percent of schools from Peru. During the pandemic, they were either closed entirely or only offered online classes, which many children, such as Azumi and Chenely, were unable to access.

That’s despite Peru reopening shopping malls and casinos with occupancy restrictions last year.

In a country where almost one in five people live below the official poverty rate, definite Like earning less than 338 soles ($ 85) a month, the effect on millions of children has been devastating.

Although there is a dearth of good international statistics, Peru is one of the last in Latin America that still keeps most of its schools closed. Even Venezuela, ravaged by the crisis, has resumed face-to-face classes, while worldwide 80 percent of countries have returned to normal education.

School reopens in doubt

In María del Triunfo, already plagued by a host of social problems, including alcoholism and domestic violence, a generation of children have been largely left alone, wandering the streets while their parents work, missing two formative years of their education. .

The problem has been both caused and exacerbated by the disastrous handling of the pandemic in Peru, registering the highest COVID per capita in the world. mortality. It has exposed decades of underfunding in the health and education sectors, while sickened and killed many parents and other providers of income and care.

However, now, even with the vaccination rate increasing rapidly and Calm down In contagions, the long-awaited reopening of schools in the Andean nation is once again in doubt. Critics say it is the victim of political infighting and a punitive, unscientific approach that has even meant that many of Peru’s outdoor playgrounds are still cordoned off by local governments.

This week, Prime Minister Mirtha Vásquez announced that the goal was for schools to reopen in March 2023. That could require significant investment in currently inadequate infrastructure, and Vásquez warned that reopening could be delayed until July.

That worries César Ugarte, an epidemiologist at the Cayetano Heredia University, the best medical school in Peru. “It is very disturbing to hear the prime minister even mention July. The Peruvian state moves so slowly that we could end up losing a third year. One way or another, we have to start in March. “

But Peru’s main teachers union, SUTEP, is resisting those plans. He insists on a list of conditions, including full vaccination of all teachers.

Chickens are seen outside a building near a school in Puna, Peru [File: Alessandro Cinque/Reuters]

SUTEP leader Lucio Castro told Al Jazeera that 54 percent of public schools do not have “basic services,” including sewerage and electricity. That rate rises to 79 percent in rural areas. Meanwhile, only 60 percent of teachers have been vaccinated.

“We are only asking for basic infrastructure, not perfection,” he said. “Teachers are more interested than anyone in going back to school. We understand that the most affected by this are the students ”.

Ugarte acknowledges that SUTEP’s demand that teachers be prioritized in the vaccination queue may have once made sense, but is now irrelevant. He also believes that providing disinfectant in schools, rather than plumbing, should be the short-term goal.

Peru has now fully vaccinated more than 15 million people, most with injections from Pfizer and Sinopharm. In Lima, where about a third of the population of 32 million people live, and other large cities, the government is now vaccinating adolescents.

“There is no excuse now. If you are over 18 years old, you have the opportunity to receive the vaccines, ”says Ugarte. “At some point, we may have to start doing with teachers what they are doing with medical personnel in other countries. If you are not vaccinated, bye. Otherwise, you are putting our children at risk. “

‘There are ways to recover’

SUTEP’s anger with the government has a long and complicated history. Pedro Castillo, Peru’s new left-wing president, was a rural school teacher and a member of that union, until he led a wildcat strike in 2017, opposing reforms in Peru. low performance schools, even requiring teachers to pass exams, and formed a new group.

One of the first things he did, upon taking office, was to officially recognize FENATEP, his separatist union. Meanwhile, new Education Minister Carlos Gallardo, a Castillo ally, has also suggested that schools may not be required to reopen in March. His ministry did not respond to Al Jazeera’s request for comment.

The issues at stake include overall school spending, especially raising teacher salaries to minimal levels. The current government proposes 4 percent of gross domestic product (GDP), well below Castillo’s campaign promise of 10 percent, which earned him qualified support from SUTEP.

However, Ricardo Cuenca, who was Minister of Education in the previous government, insists that a solution can be found. “The message that all is lost is not good for children. There are ways to recover. And the experiences in other countries, with the resumption of schooling, have not all been good. “

“But there should be no more delays. We came up with the current coronavirus protocol at a time when there was community transmission. Circumstances have changed. “

Back in Maria del Triunfo, Azumi and Chenely may be among the lucky ones. They are receiving at least two hours of classes a week taught by a local elementary school teacher, Norma Huamani, on her own initiative.

He teaches about 15 children at home on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons, after finishing his Zoom sessions with students at the local private school where he works.

“Public school teachers are just content to keep collecting their salaries,” says Huamani, 59.

“In private schools, many teachers have had their salary cut in half. Now we have children, who are eight or nine years old, who cannot read and are just hanging out on the street. This is the least I can do. “

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