In Venezuela, teachers adapt to a COVID-19 world
As school closures continue, UNICEF is supporting teachers to help keep children healthy and learning.
CARACAS, Venezuela – After more than 20 years working as a teacher, Alibert is familiar with the ups and downs that come with her profession, including the myriad challenges of providing an education against the backdrop of an unfolding economic and political crisis. But nothing could have prepared her for the massive upheaval and uncertainty created by the COVID-19 pandemic.
As a primary education coordinator at a school on the outskirts of Caracas, Alibert is responsible for 20 teachers who between them teach almost 500 children, aged 5-12 years. But as schools across the region began to close in March to help prevent the spread of COVID-19, Alibert and her colleagues were faced with the daunting prospect of adapting classes for distance learning for the very first time.
“This approach has never been used for such young children,” she says.
A lack of resources and unreliable internet access for many families has compounded the difficulties. “It has been a huge challenge reaching everyone, reaching all families,” Alibert says.
It’s a familiar problem for other countries in Latin America and the Caribbean. Across the region, the prolonged closure of schools means that 137 million boys and girls continue to miss out on a regular education. With each passing day of schools being closed, a generational catastrophe risks unfolding, one with profound consequences for society.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, UNICEF’s response has focused on working with partners to enable children and adolescents to continue learning at home by providing technical and operational support, including resources such as smartphones and training for teachers. Alibert says that staying in touch with students and families has been one of the biggest challenges during the pandemic, but that smartphones provided by UNICEF has made things easier. By the end of July, 900 teachers in Miranda state, where Alibert works, had received mobile phones with internet access as part of the initiative.
UNICEF has also provided training on child protection and emergency education strategies at schools including Alibert’s.
“Now we can offer holistic support not only to children but to parents – they also need training to support their children in their learning. Teachers are designing a weekly workbook with activities and objectives, and we’re making adjustments as we see how the family is doing,” she says. “Supporting families is an ongoing job.”
Food for minds and bodies
Miguel has also had to adapt to teaching during the pandemic. He teaches electrical installation and joinery to young people at a training centre on the outskirts of Caracas. His students typically come from low-income backgrounds and want to learn a trade to help support their families. Some of the students haven’t been able to finish high school. But even those still in school are interested in learning the practical skills the centre offers.
“I wasn’t very computer literate, but I’ve been learning,” he says. “I don’t have a smartphone, so it’s hard to send the questions and assessments by text message.”
Miguel and the team at the training centre have developed workbooks for the students, which are sent out every two weeks. In addition to academic support, training course participants receive a monthly food kit as part of a UNICEF-supported food programme. An estimated 80 million children in the Latin American and Caribbean region are currently missing out on what, for many, is the healthiest meal of the day, placing them at risk of developing nutrient deficiencies, according to the World Food Programme.
“Many of the students were in tears the first time they picked up the food kits because they weren’t expecting them,” Miguel says. “This [support] is priceless. And it has been lovely seeing the young people respond to distance learning.”
As a teacher, Miguel has also benefited from the food kits. “I received a kit and a personal hygiene pack containing shower gel, soap, a mask and shampoo,” he says. “I have a five-year-old daughter, so the food kit was like a gift from heaven – she has been able to start drinking milk!”
Support for students in Venezuela is provided as part of the Education Cannot Wait fund, launched by UNICEF and partners to provide access to education for millions of children and adolescents in crisis situations around the world. In Venezuela, the programme targets children at risk of dropping out of school or those who are already outside the education system, supporting them by tracking their academic progress and providing food directly to schools and community centres.