CARACAS – María Figueroa often climbs onto the rooftop of her building in Venezuela’s capital clutching a phone and laptop looking for a signal and has paid to run an internet cable to her neighbor’s home, as she struggles to educate her children remotely amid a coronavirus lockdown.
But these work-arounds often end in frustration, she says, reflecting the difficulties of teaching children online in technology-challenged Venezuela, where flipping on the light switch can be a luxury and a strong internet connection a dream. The government of President Nicolás Maduro has closed schools and ordered teachers and students to finish the year remotely amid the pandemic.
“It’s the most important tool we could have right now,” said Figueroa of the spotty internet service. “And it’s the least reliable.”
Figueroa, 34, considers herself lucky to have a smartphone and laptop on loan from work as an office assistant. But they’re often useless because she has no internet connection in her poor Caracas neighborhood of Catia, and the telephone rarely gets a signal inside her apartment.
So she, like many Venezuelan parents, scramble to make do. She says she takes photographs of her children’s written homework and quickly hits “send” when a signal appears. She also paid a neighbor $5 — more than most earn here in a month — to run a 50-meter (165-foot) cable to their home and connect.
Venezuela was among Latin America’s first nations that went on lockdown shortly after the first cases of the novel coronavirus were discovered here in mid-March. Officials say they’ve so far detected fewer than 500 cases and they attribute 10 deaths to the virus. Critics of Venezuela's socialist government say that’s an under-count and warn it could easily spread in a country with extreme shortages of medical equipment and medicines. Maduro has extended a quarantine to mid-June, and many residents fear it could go much longer.
An estimated 5 million Venezuelans have fled amid a deep economic crisis, and many of the 25 million staying behind go without reliable electricity and running water. Venezuela reported having more than 10 million students enrolled in school in 2016, the start of the nation’s current crisis sparking the exodus of migrants.
While parents say they want their children to complete the school year even from home, not every family in Venezuela has access to the internet or smartphones.
Administrators at the Faith and Joy School in Las Mayas neighborhood of Caracas said they’ve connected up to 90% of their students, sending home assignments through the apps like Facebook and WhatsApp. But many parents have to borrow neighbors’ phones to get their children’s assignments.
Nearly 17 million Venezuelans have internet access, reports Conatel, Venezuela ’s telecommunications regulatory agency. However, over half of homes report that every day their internet fails, the Venezuelan Observatory of Public Services reported in December.
For students who can’t get online at all, the school set up cardboard boxes in the cafeteria where parents drop off their child’s homework. Teachers correct it and put it in notebooks to be picked up along with another two weeks of homework.
At nearby Dr. Guillermo Delgado Palacios School, some parents visit the campus to copy their children’s homework by hand from boards posted at the school entrance.
Teacher Elizabeth Franco, wearing rubber gloves and a face mask in her empty classroom, said she doesn’t have the technology to receive students’ homework. Instead, she’s worked out this system to see her through the end of the school year.
Parents say it's a lot of trouble, but it is the price of an education in trying times.
Figueroa has a 2-year-old, 11-year-old twins, and a 13-year-old son. She raises them alone after her husband migrated to find work.
“Imagine, I’m here alone with my four children,” she said. “I can only handle so much.”