Schooling in times of COVID
Since the middle of March, schools at all levels in El Salvador have not had in-person classroom learning in order to avoid the spread of the coronavirus in the country. This will continue for months more as the Ministry of Education has announced that public schools will not have resume in person during this calendar year.
In a country where internet access is not universal, and where most people access any online content only over cell phones, the switch to virtual learning has been a challenge. A recent article from FocosTV reported that only 1 in 10 Salvadoran households have an internet-connected computer according to government statistics, but 9 of 10 have a cellphone which they now use for access to schooling.
Faced with this reality, most public school interaction between teachers and students occurs through WhatsApp, the widely used smartphone app. 25,000 teachers across El Salvador are using the chat application in order to communicate lessons and interact with their students according to Focos.
The teachers, like the families of their students, also lack computers at home, and even though the Ministry of Education says it has been able to distribute 9000 computers to teachers, this is far from sufficient to reach the entire corps of educators.
Linda, who writes the blog Walking With El Salvador, has done a number of posts about the new schooling reality in the country. From her post Partnering during a Pandemic: Supporting Education When School is at the Kitchen Table:
The 2020 school year began in mid-January. In March, all schools and universities were closed. University courses are currently being done online. In many school districts (actually, in all of the cases I looked into), students from Kindergarten through High School are receiving assignments via WhatsApp. They can communicate with their teachers this way, and they also submit their completed assignments using WhatsApp. Older students also seem to have some access to online classes (with the teacher actually teaching), and groups of students have definitely set up chat groups for doing projects and consulting together. Parents are responsible for monitoring their children's studies....
For children and youth in Kindergarten through High School, a new need to purchase internet access (typically on smart phones) is part of the online study reality. Student projects, experiments, etc all need to be completed in the home, photographed and submitted. Project supplies can be purchased at the Super by the family shopper. Though bus money is not needed by students, there are clearly food, toilet paper and other expenses that now are incurred by the family instead of the school.
From her July post Partnering During a Pandemic: What's Happening in Home School?:
In El Salvador, during the end of June and beginning of July, students are completing their current grading cycle in advance of the August week of vacation. Since March, students have been studying at home. During the lockdown (which went through part of June), many families could not go out to work. Hunger has been a real struggle. Two tropical storms brought flooding to many communities and some level of damage to almost everyone's home. The arrival of the dust storm from the Sahara desert exacerbated an already difficult situation.
Illness is everywhere. Is it being caused by bacteria in standing flood waters and contaminated soil? Are the fevers being caused by dengue? Zika? Chikungunya? Are the respiratory symptoms being caused by the thick dust in the humid air? Is it Covid-19? Yes. Yes to all of it.
This is the reality in which kids are studying at home. Locked in. Parents unable to work. Hungry. Wet. Sick. Yet, amazingly, children and youth from preschool to the university are doing their work and taking their exams and learning in the best ways they can.
Over the past week, I connected with several families in El Salvador to revisit the theme of education and see how things are going. Here are a few things which families and leaders wish to share and a few suggestions for those who are supporting education initiatives and scholarship programs:
Internet is vital. Internet is available to students and they use cell phones to access it. Students and parents connect with their teachers/professors one-on-one, via chat groups and learn by watching online videos. Very few schools can use online interactive platforms due to the slow speed of the network. Students submit their homework online (even the little ones have to take photos of their work and make short WhatsApp videos to send to their teachers). Older students take exams online. Your continued support of scholarship students during 2020 allows families to pay for internet. If you have the capacity to help, you could ask community and program leaders if support is needed for additional students in your community.
Printing things is required. Students do not have books. Everything is sent to them via links, and many things must be printed. This includes large documents for study by university students. (Think about a whole family sharing one phone or trying to read a PDF online over a weak signal.) There are places even in small communities that do printing. Some families have printers and try to assist neighbors or run a little mini-business. Paper and ink are both costly.
The NGO Voices on the Border also shared on its blog stories from three teachers in rural El Salvador talking about how they have had to adapt with limited digital resources:. Rural Education in Times of COVID-19.
We can get other glimpses of how education is proceeding in the Facebook pages of different schools. The Facebook posts of the Prof. Emilio Urrutia López elementary school in the municipality of Tonacatepeque offer an example of schooling continuing, with families posting videos of children practicing folkloric dances, with health videos and updates, as well as the occasional announcement of the death of a teacher or community member during this pandemic.
The Ministry of Education is also offering daily educational programming on Channel 10 in El Salvador over the air and on Facebook Live.
In El Salvador, as in countries throughout the world, the coronavirus pandemic has exposed gaps and inequalities in many areas. Access to education in these times requires access to technology, to a data plan on a smart phone, to a quiet space at home. For the poor around the world, these challenges are disrupting the education of too many children.
At ElSalvador.com, there is the story of two university students working hard to follow their dreams. They live in a rural area of Ahuachapan where is is difficult to receive a cell signal. So their father, an agricultural worker, has set up a small desk for them high up a hillside where they can get the precious transmissions of data and continue their university studies. We can celebrate that some will always find a way to climb the hills in their lives and overcome even the most vexxing obstacles.