Within days from each other, public education systems in Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, the U.S. Virgin Islands and Cuba suspended classes in schools in March this year to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. With no time, tools or defined public policies to lay down strategies that would somehow ensure and measure student participation and progress, distance learning had predictable results.
The structural deficiencies of the education systems, the social inequality experienced by students and teachers, the digital gap, and the absence of processes for the participation of school communities in the design of educational plans, are unsolved dilemmas for back to school, amid the latent threat of COVID-19.
“We hardly learned anything,” said a 13-year-old Puerto Rican student about the abrupt change in his learning process since classes were suspended. Another young boy, 14, recalled how difficult it was to adopt a study routine with his younger sister and mother: “I’m a Special Education student and we’re used to a certain pace and support.”
A high school senior from the province of Mayabeque in Cuba crossed her fingers hoping that university entry exams were postponed, while at home she read “the book on prior years’ entry exams and tele-classes,” referring to the Ministry of Education’s televised lessons.
In Puerto Rico, the concern of a 12th grade student was precisely the postponement of that exam.
“I’d rather be in the classroom than doing this [virtual education],” a 12-year-old student told her father in the Dominican Republic. Another, from St. Thomas, recalled something similar about his 14-year-old son: “After three weeks he said, ‘I’m tired of this’.”
The U.S. Virgin Islands (USVI) and Puerto Rico have been struggling almost three years in a slow recovery from Hurricanes Irma and María. Several earthquakes have worsened the outlook since early 2020, affecting more than 300 schools in the southwestern region in Puerto Rico. In Cuba, the Minister of Education, Ena Velázquez Cobiella, acknowledged in a report on back to school that “we have an assessment of schools that have problems with sinks, toilets or water supply.” The Dominican Republic has been dealing with the lack of water in its schools even before the pandemic, according to a study by the Dominican Association of Teachers (ADP, in Spanish) in which of a sample of 300 educational centers, only 23% get this service on a daily basis.
Given that the World Health Organization (WHO) does not limit the recommendation of physical distancing to the closing of schools and the use of digital tools, but on creating “flexible attendance and sick leave policies,” changes in the academic calendar, or staggered schedules, the Center for Investigative Journalism (CPI, in Spanish) looked into the policies or changes that these Caribbean educational systems propose for the next school year.
No access to federal funds to reduce Puerto Rico’s digital gap
Teachers from the Puerto Rico Department of Education (DE) will return to classrooms in mid-August to teach virtual classes to their students, but two weeks prior to the start of the semester, only 49% of them have a computer provided by the agency as of July 27.
Southern-area students, also affected by the slow recovery after hurricanes, earthquakes and COVID-19, should be the first to receive a computer or a tablet, but they will have to wait until November, according to the DE.
Even if the agency distributes equipment to all teachers, the internet available in schools does not reach every classroom.
“I will have to walk through the school, hallway by hallway, carrying my computer to see how far the internet goes in order to validate the internet signal,” said DiMarie Ramos, the director of the Culebra Ecological School, who expressed concern about “pulling teachers out of the comfort of their home, who may be willing to use the internet at home as they have done all this time, and putting them in a classroom with two more teachers because the internet does not reach their classroom and exposing them [to get infected]”.
Preliminary DE data shows that 10% of students do not have devices to access the internet. However, the agency has not conducted a survey to find out the needs for technology equipment among school communities.
Raziel Ramos, a 14-year-old Special Education student, recommended something simpler: “Before starting online, the government should distribute a checklist where they inform which equipment they have and then provide it to the student.”
Depending on executive orders and the strengthening of municipal tracing systems, the DE proposed September 14, as a tentative date to go back to schools or trailers, which are what students in the municipalities of Peñuelas, Guánica and Guayanilla will have as “infrastructure”. Under a hybrid model, groups of 15 students will switch between face-to-face and online classes.
The agency has a plan for the funds allocated by the U.S. Coronavirus Economic Aid, Relief and Security Act (Cares Act) for elementary and secondary schools, setting aside the largest investment for an online teaching platform. The money will also go toward providing devices to connect to the internet and hiring psychologists and nurses for all schools; but the DE will only have access to $7.3 million of the $349,113,000 until a contract is signed with the third party fiduciary imposed by the U.S. Department of Education.
Some schools have nurses and psychologists, but these professionals have to divide their time among several schools, according to the director of the Ramón Power and Giralt school of San Juan, Eddie Santiago. “I have a nurse, but she is not there five days a week because we share her with another school. She’s here three days [a week] and is paid with Restart funds, so they share the nurses to cover all the schools,” he explained.
The participation of students and teachers in distance education platforms and their efficiency cannot be verified, since the agency only counted web page users, instead of the unique users, or collecting information about their navigation and use.
Although the DE published modules on its website as part of the distance education alternatives, at least five teachers consulted said they opted for alternative platforms such as Google Classroom and Edmodo, virtual meetings or phone calls to communicate with their students. They all agreed they were unable to contact 100% of their students.
Despite the fact that teachers were unable to contact all of their students, last April, the DE made the evaluations more flexible, passing 4,752 eighth and 12th grade students who failed a class The agency adopted new codes — promoted (P) and conditionally promoted (PC, in Spanish) — to substitute failing evaluations (F), awarding PC to 38,042 students. These students will be able to change that evaluation after reinforcing skills through an afterschool program next semester, the agency said.
“Transmitting some stability or normalcy” was a priority for Marianela Méndez, a Spanish teacher at the Juan Ponce de León school in Guaynabo, who turned to a blog, videoconferences, and chats to contact her students. Meanwhile, Ángel Nazario, the math teacher at the Lola Rodríguez de Tió school in San Germán, , designed a general evaluation based on the works submitted “without penalizing anyone” to finish the semester since out of 127 students, he could only reach 75 by email or phone.
The physics teacher at the Gilberto Concepción de Gracia high school in Carolina, Hugo Delgado, was able to communicate with almost all of his 12th grade students, but he did not have the same luck with those in ninth grade. Similarly, the math teacher at the María T. Piñeiro school in Toa Baja, Miguel Torres, estimated that he managed to contact 70% of his students. Noelanie Fuentes Cardona, a social studies teacher at the Liberata Iraldo middle school in Río Grande, recalled that she reached most of her students on the Edmodo platform, however, “I had students who only had the government’s cell phone and communicated when they had a signal.”
Raziel noted that it was tough to maintain his study routine as a Special Education student from home because, “My mom has her own remote job, plus my little sister.”
Amanda Parés and Maia González, both 7 years-old, talked about going back to the classroom some days a week. But José M. Vázquez, 13, says that “wearing a mask for eight hours is too much,” although he admits he did not like virtual education last semester because “there was no organization for the classes online. I don’t think any school was [organized] because nobody knew what came next. We hardly learned anything.”
High school senior Patricia González Navarro described the virtual learning process as “being in a fast food drive-thru service: while they make the food, you do the assignment and hand it in.” Now her biggest concern is the college entrance exam because, “Eleventh graders were supposed to take the College [Board test] in February and we couldn’t because of the earthquakes. So, when are they going to give it to us? Because universities begin to receive applications in December.”
Only 54% of households on the Island have internet access and 62% have a computer, according to the 2013-2017 U.S. Census Community Survey. Some samples among the teachers show similar limitations. A survey of 190 Montessori public school attendees showed that 50% do not have a computer and 63% have limited internet on their cell phones. Another sample of 3,720 students done by Puerto Rico Teachers Federation (FMPR, in Spanish), found that 88% do not have a computer provided by the DE. For many, the cell phone is the only option to connect to the network, with the known limitations of available data and speed.
The president of the Puerto Rico Association of Teachers (AMPR, in Spanish), Elba Aponte, said meetings with the Secretary are ongoing because, “we understand the importance of opening schools, our teachers long for the classroom, and reject the virtual alternative because it’s not the most viable to meet student needs. The southern area has the widest gap, apart from the fact that schools haven’t been able to bounce back [after the earthquakes].”
The FMPR estimated that more than 13,000 southwestern area students never returned to classes due to the earthquakes that affected their schools. The testimony of a mother before the Special Education Steering Committee, Saime Figueroa, confirms it: “My son’s school never opened after the earthquakes. No school in Yauco restarted.”
Regarding this situation, school social worker Lydimar Garriga Vidal warned that, “We had students who disappeared from the system this semester because they were in schools that could not open after the earthquakes, and while going from school to school, the pandemic hit, and nobody had an address or a phone number to contact them. There were students who disappeared, and the Department has done nothing to correct these situations.”
Six months after the emergency declaration due to the earthquakes, the only visible project has been the demolition of the Agripina Seda school in Guánica, at a cost of $579,000. The plan to repair 253 schools declared partially suitable, and 53 deemed unsuitable is still unknown, but the Secretary confirmed that students from Guayanilla, Peñuelas and Guánica will take classes in trailers in smaller groups. The leasing contracts for the temporary classrooms have not yet been completed, but a lease for almost $2 million was signed for Puerto Rico’s Industrial Development Company lots, where they will be placed.
Parents in the USVI have the last word
Some leaders from the USVI’s teaching community agree that the lack of schools and technological tools, regardless of the chosen modality, will be an obstacle to effectively going back to school.
“I think that distance learning is going to be going on for some time,” said Rosa Soto-Thomas, the president of the St. Croix Federation of Teachers, adding that the education system will probably struggle to comply with guidelines issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Her counterpart in St. John and St. Thomas, Carol Callwood, believes, “We don’t have the infrastructure to guarantee online education.”
What concerns La Vaughn Belle, a mother of three girls and acting president of the Parent Teacher Association at Pearl B. Larsen Elementary School in St. Croix, about going back to school is, “How that’s going to mentally impact our kids if that’s the focus of school: making sure they’re not touching each other, and making sure they’re not coughing on each other, and making sure they’re not breathing on each other, and making sure they’re not touching anything that someone else has touched. I mean, just imagine doing that all day long.”
The Virgin Islands Department of Education (VIDE) proposed a safety protocol and September 8 as a tentative date to start the 2020-21 school year, but it will be the parents who will decide how their children resume learning. Options include using virtual education for a semester or returning to school in a hybrid model of three days of face-to-face and two with distance learning.
Callwood believes that, “The academic and the equity gap is going to be widened, because those who didn’t have (the internet learning tools) at the start, now they have less. So, when they return, they’re going to know less.”
Surveys released by the VIDE toward the end of June showed that most parents prefer to continue online education, while teachers would choose the hybrid model. Although most of the students answered that they understand the risks of going back to school, they also admitted that they strongly dislike the idea of returning to classrooms wearing a mask at all times.
Dr. Wayne Archibald, the executive director of nonprofit educational organization Junior Achievement of the VI, said his ninth-grade son initially liked learning from home.
“During the first week or so, my son thought it was like the coolest thing. Yeah, you get to stay home and just be in class and still see your friends [online]. And after like, two, three weeks later, he was like, ‘Okay, I’m tired of this’,” Dr. Archibald said.
Belle pointed out that some students struggle more than others with learning from home.
“That kind of learning is not optimal and some of them cannot do it. If you’re a kid with ADHD, how do you expect that child to sit on the computer for two hours a day by themselves?”, said Belle.
Similar to the Puerto Rico Department of Education, the VIDE fell short in the distribution of equipment for its 21,800 students. As of May, the agency had distributed 417 laptops and 335 devices to connect to the internet among students whose academic average for the third quarter was less than 70%.
Callwood said that the computers the agency distributed were not newly obtained for the purpose.
“I thought they were ordering some new ones, but basically what they did was distribute the ones that they’ve already had in the school,” she said, adding, “The only thing they had to do is get the Mi-Fis (portable devices to connect to the internet) from the companies.”
Although most teachers have computers or tablets, many students in the islands either don’t have a computer at home or they share it with other family members, Callwood said. Also, electricity outages are common, and there are areas of the archipelago where there is no internet connection of any kind, she said. According to the 2010 Census, out of 55,901 housing units, 3,616 had no internet connection at the time, though no census has been completed after hurricanes Irma and Maria, which damaged much of the islands’ communications infrastructure.
At least two new schools are needed in St. Thomas and St. John after a middle school was destroyed by Hurricane María and a high school had to subsequently close because it is structurally unsafe, Callwood said. Schools usually have 25 to 30 students per classroom, although “a class size of 15 would be ideal. But because they’ve consolidated so many of the schools, that’s virtually impossible, because there are too many students,” she said.
Archibald recalled that “After (hurricanes Irma and Maria), the kids missed out like a whole semester, right? And then in January, when they came back to school, you know, they had these alternating shifts… So it makes you wonder, well, how much learning is really going on? There is a generation of students with many gaps in their education.”
Soto-Thomas expressed concern that during a hearing before a USVI Senate committee, Department officials couldn’t answer exactly how many students had been unable to continue their education.
“There were questions as to how many kids are we reaching. And no one could answer that, and that disturbed me. We need that information,” she said, adding that the agency assigned only one laptop per home even though there are families with more than one student. She also said that the Department didn’t know how many unionized teachers lacked internet or other needed equipment.
Education Commissioner Racquel Barry-Benjamin estimated that a plan for distance learning would require an investment of $14.5 million.
Jeanette Smith-Barry, a member of the islands’ Board of Education since January 2019, understands that everyone is having difficulty adapting education to pandemic times, but, “There’s a lot that I think that needs to be done. And I just don’t know how much of it is getting done” to plan the return to school considering that the recovery from the 2017 hurricanes is ongoing.
The VIDE’s plan not to count the grades students earned in the last quarter of the school year — when the pandemic hit — met with opposition from the Board of Education, which argued that the change was unfair for students who had worked hard during that period.
But the plan was a relief for La Vaughn Belle, because the distance-learning system “was creating a lot of stress and anxiety at home and I could see that this form of learning, especially during this time of a pandemic, was too stressful. The teachers weren’t necessarily trained on doing online classes.”
The different teachers’ schedules also “made it difficult as a parent to work,” she said, adding that the situation improved after the government relaxed the importance of the fourth grading period.
Dominican Republic knows when, but not how, to go back to school
In the Dominican Republic, online education was also a challenge, since according to Xiomara Guante, the president of the ADP, only one of four households has a computer with internet access, and the República Digital project, a government initiative that seeks to close the technological gap, has barely reached 5% of the students.
Abril and Ariel Paulino, who are 12 and 14 years-old respectively, are among those students who received computers through this initiative, their father Antonio said. “They’ve had a laptop since last year… it’s not the most modern, but works well to do schoolwork,” he said, recalling that, “I know of a school that doesn’t have that connection with parents, so it was decided that they would pick up student assignments at the school on Monday and they would drop them off on Friday at the school, after they were completed.”
The 2018 National Household Survey, released by the Dominican National Statistics Office, confirmed that out of almost 40,000 respondents, 75% did not have internet service at home, 94% did not have a desktop computer, and 89% did not have a laptop.
“Teachers had to use WhatsApp, a platform that isn’t for teaching, only to save the year, which had to be saved, but that caused a lot of stress and many issues,” said Guante.
In mid-March, the Minister of Education, Antonio Peña Mirabal, made it clear that, “we cannot afford to pay for the internet. Families can go to public Wi-Fi hotspots, keeping the recommended distance.”
The Dominican Republic Ministry of Education (MINERD, in Spanish) established three platforms to serve the student population by levels and one for teachers. Almost a month later, it launched educational programming on two television channels, and pre-kindergarten and kindergarten students were given “printed workbooks.” Starting in June, MINERD resumed the distribution of computers for high school students and teachers.
Grade school teacher Shiomelkys Brito believes that “learning did not go as expected. Yes, the content was covered, but children don’t learn the same, because you need a person to be on top of them.” Regarding the return to classes, the teacher assured that “I already know the disadvantages and advantages that I will encounter, and would prepare the parents to work with us via Zoom.”
Of her 31 students, Brito was able to contact 26 “because they didn’t have internet service, because their phone was out of service, or for any other reason.”
High school teacher Luz del Carmen Madrigal contacted her students by email, WhatsApp and then Google Classroom. “Some had a problem because they didn’t have access to the internet. They got in touch with some of their peers, sometimes they would send them a photo (of their work) so they could send it to me. A few were found who had no interest but that was out of neglect.”
For Annie Paulino, mother of three children of 12, 7 and 4 years, the neglect came from the teachers of her two youngest.
“In Camila’s case, who’s in sixth grade, the teacher made a video call and they would take up the week’s subjects, and the questions that the children had were answered, but with the two younger ones, the teachers only sent the photos and I was the one who had to ‘guameármela’ (deal with the situation). They didn’t give an explanation. As a parent, one may know the subjects, but does not know how to teach them in a way that the child can understand. It’s the teacher who has the training to provide an explanation that the child can understand,” she said.
Similar to Puerto Rico and the USVI, the National Council of Education (CNE, in Spanish) approved on May 20, passing students who got more than 70 points, on a conditional basis. Students who did not get the score participated in a virtual “Recovery Program” from June 1-19. If they fail that program, they move on to a third “leveling process” during the first 45 to 60 days of the next school year.
For Guante, teaching must be combined because most schools, “lack water on a permanent basis, most can’t guarantee hygiene, there are no physical conditions. So, to reduce the number of students, it is mandatory to consider dividing them and having virtual teaching and having in-person teaching.” However, Antonio Paulino recalled that his daughter told him, “I would rather be in the classroom than doing this [distance education]; because they gave them a lot of assignments.”
Cuba reopens its classrooms in September
Before in-person classes were suspended on March 23, Elisa García Luis recalled that at her seven-year-old daughter’s school, “children have to wash their hands before and after snacks and lunch, but the problem is that sometimes there’s no water. They prepared a large container with hypochlorite that they put (on their hands) when they entered the school. I give Karolina her soap, her towel and her gel. There are 28 children in the classroom and there’s no air circulation. Few are going. We’re not going to send her in tomorrow, and tomorrow is when they finish (learning) the alphabet.”
Cuba has a program to repair schools and nursery schools that visits more than 1,000 of these facilities each year. Ten percent, or 1,339, were classified as being in fair and poor condition, the Ministry of Education’s Investment Director (MINED, in Spanish), Francisco Navarro Gouraige, said in the “Mesa Redonda” television program, but so far only 233 institutions have been repaired.
Access to drinking water in schools was a problem the Minister of Education acknowledged , although she assured that, “That is being addressed, and many schools were included in the maintenance and repair plan.”
Even with these structural needs, about 200 nursery schools — serving students from six months to six years — continued to operate. “There are many mothers who must work and have no one to take care of their child and need this service,” said Velázquez Cobiella.
Clara Amelia Fernández, mother of an eight-year-old boy, applauded the closing of schools, “But the children have to be at home, not in the line to get bread or on the street. Kevin has been bored all week, wanting to go out, but he can’t.”
While Fernández applauded the closing of schools, a young nursery school teacher questioned: “If they closed the other school grades, why not close this one, which is where the youngest children are?” Massiel Heredia Anglada said, “of the 35 children in my classroom, only six are coming to school. There are many who do not have a cough or fever, but mothers don’t bring them to school because they are afraid that they will get sick.”
In Cuba, seven out of a population of 11 million, have an internet connection, and a year ago, mobile data connection became available, with average speeds between 2G and 3G. The 4G speed service is subject to connections at 1,513 terminals or public hotspots. A 10-gigabyte monthly data pack costs $45, an unaffordable rate for the country’s average monthly salary ($30). Regarding the availability of equipment, the National Statistics and Information Office’s annual report shows that at the end of 2018, there were 126 personal computers for every 1,000 residents.
The cost of accessing the internet or the lack of technological equipment voids the possibilities of virtual education for Cuban students, so classes began to be televised on March 30.
Jennifer Sánchez Alonso is 18 years old and is a senior at the Ignacio Agramonte pre-university program in the Mayabeque province, between Havana and Matanzas. She said that, “we had time in school to review half of the content, we had to do the other half at home. It’s better for me that they postpone the [college entrance exams] dates. In history, for example, almost everything depends on individual study; but in math there are many things that weren’t reviewed and will be included in the test. I use the textbook to study the entrance exams of prior years, and tele-classes. Right now, I’m studying math. When I have doubts I go ask the teacher, who lives near my house. But whoever lives in another town has no way to clear up doubts.”
The MINED established some phases to restart the school year based on a hybrid model of televised and in-person classes. From September 1st until October 31 students will go back to their educational centers to complete 2019-2020 school year, “in the same grade and year, because the [actual] course will end in this phase”, Velázquez Cobiella said. Only elementary students will have face-to-face classes all week. It will be four days starting with seventh grade; and from 10th grade onward, three times a week.
The 2020-21 school year begins November 2, with a nine-week cutback in class time with “curricular adaptations prepared by teams of specialists from the Central Institute of Pedagogical Sciences, UCP Enrique José Varona and MINED, which doesn’t imply a frequency reduction of the subjects, nor elimination of content.” Education is expected to continue in a combined mode.
This story was possible in part with the support of Fundación Segarra Boerman e Hijos and the Facebook Journalism Project.