In light of the national lockdown for the COVID-19 pandemic, Venezuela’s Ministry of Education has suspended face-to-face classes and instructed teachers to finish the second period of the academic year remotely. The quarantine coincided with the final part of the school year.
Carrying out the third and final cycles of the 2019-2020 school year remotely requires a basic IT and telecommunications technology (ICT) infrastructure that does not exist in our country.
The minister for education, Aristóbulo Istúriz, has informed that the decision to implement a "pedagogical plan" to complete the school year at home through the internet, mobile phones, television and community radios and in conjunction with teachers was taken following a popular consultation carried out via the Homeland Card system, giving it a very limited facade of a referendum.
But what is the reality of internet connections in Venezuela, and what technological infrastructure will the government’s "Each Family Is a School" program rely on?
According to puzzling data from the National Telecommunications Commission (CONATEL), in the first quarter of 2019 59.9 percent of the Venezuelan population had access to the internet. It should be noted that CONATEL includes both home internet connections as well as basic mobile phone data plans, and every smartphone comes with a basic data plan.
In addition, this access varies according to region. In [metropolitan area of] Miranda State or the Capital District there is 109.68 and 109.69 percent access respectively, a suspicious surplus which is only understandable when we consider that people often travel to the capital region to buy mobile phone lines or USB drive internet subscriptions.
But, in the official statistics, [the western states of] Carabobo, Cojedes and Zulia have internet access levels of 47.07, 47 and 44.3 percent respectively. [Southern states of] Apure and Amazonas have rates of 29 and 18.19 percent. In fact, based on CONATEL data, more than half of the population does not have internet coverage in most states of the country.
According to the UN’s International Telecommunication Union, these figures could be even more alarming. In its 2018 dossier on Venezuela, the agency notes that only 45.68 percent of the population owns a home computer and only 33.5 percent of households have internet connections.
Assuming that the CONATEL figures are trustworthy, then 40 percent of the country's population does not have access to the internet.
However, we should look at the terrible quality of the service and the country’s connectivity.
According to the 2018 Annual Report on Digital Rights in Venezuela -- published on the website of the Venezuelan Institute of Press and Society -- Venezuela has the second slowest internet connections in all of Latin America. The average speed of the connection here is 1.8 megabytes per second (Mbps), while in Peru and Argentina it is 6.3 Mbps, Brazil 6.8 Mbps, Mexico of 7.3 Mbps and in Chile it is 9.3 Mbps.
But, moreover, like almost everything in Venezuela, there are regions where the quality of the service is worse due to being further away from the political centre of the country. Western states such as Trujillo had in 2018 an average connection speed of 0.87 Mbps, Merida 0.70 and Cojedes 0.69.
Virtual schooling is usually an optional system for adult education. The National Open University (UNA) has experience in this, and offers only certain courses this way, with the face-to-face component reduced but never completely eliminated.
Other countries such as Spain are adapting classes for basic, middle and university education in the understanding that it is provisional and because of the pandemic’s contingency. But Spain does not have terrible indicators of internet connection and broadband speed like Venezuela.
The emergency pedagogical plan – which offers more "rhetoric" than a serious analysis of Venezuelan reality – can hardly be successful.
This is more certain still when we take into account Venezuela's long economic crisis, hyperinflation, the increased cost of internet services and ICT equipment, the dismantling of the country's infrastructure, the US financial and commercial siege, the widespread deterioration of education and the miserable salaries which see Venezuelan teachers receive around $9 per month.
All of these are obvious facts. The majority of Venezuelans, including teachers and students, do not have the minimum conditions needed for virtual schooling programs, as proposed by the ministry.
It is one thing for the media to present a programme that helps elevate the general culture of the population and promote scientific knowledge, and quite another for authorities to pretend that this will be able to remedy the flaws of a teaching system that has been in free fall for years, even though senior government officials often ignore this fact.
The reality is that classes are going to be lost and the shortcomings of Venezuelan students will deepen. It would have been wiser to swallow this fact and understand that the immediate fight is against the virus, albeit temporarily, as this pandemic will be overcome sooner or later.
We must urgently take on the need to build an educational system truly at the service of the scientific and technical development of the country, endowed with the modern tools that allow us to successfully face future challenges and, above all, understand that the main element of the educational system is the teaching proletariat, which cannot continue to be the worst paid profession in Venezuela.
Wladimir Abreu is a history teacher, a member of the Communist Party of Venezuela and a regular writer for outlets including Tribuna Popular.
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Venezuelanalysis editorial staff.
Translation by Paul Dobson for Venezuelanalysis.