It’s 5.00 AM. Violeta wakes up to go to her job in Capinota, a municipality in Cochabamba, Bolivia in South America, one hour and a half away from her home. She is in charge of disinfecting her classroom until her students arrive wearing surgical or cloth masks. Although you can’t see their facial expressions, they’re happy to see each other.
Violeta is a preschool teacher in a rural town and had never thought about the struggles that came with 2020.
Since the Minister of Education’s announcement in July of 2021, other rural teachers like Violeta had to prepare their classes in one of three modalities: in-person, semi in-person, and distance classes.
No connection, no good education
However, during the pandemic in 2020, almost 9.000 rural teachers were at a disadvantage in their daily work. Virtual classes in Bolivia showed that access to technology in rural areas is low. As a consequence, many educators had to face the challenge and adapt to continue their job.
“According to educational provisions, we must do our job even though we had entered quarantine” Rosa Lucía Calle Chuquimia, an elementary rural teacher.
Rural teachers were suddenly involved in a social context where having mobile devices and Internet connection was a privilege, and even more so with the economic crisis that Bolivian families faced.
BOLIVIA: HOMES WITH ICT ACCESS, BASED ON AREA 2020
For that reason, teachers organized with the student’s parents to provide them textbooks instead of an inaccessible virtual education. These textbooks contained the main subjects that their children need for the course. However, this strategy demonstrated that students in rural areas didn’t have the support of their family members.
A journey for rural teachers
Rene Calcina Quispe, a preschool rural teacher, said that in the morning, parents in rural areas go to work on their farms or lands with their animals while children are alone in their homes. Another negative aspect according to Mr. Calcina regards touch smartphones. The community doesn’t use them because they prefer a cellphone that mainly makes and receives calls. So, during the pandemic, Mr. Calcina and his colleagues visited home to home to teach with the textbooks. But, even so, rural parents didn’t give much importance to their children’s education.
“In rural areas, families don’t have enough money to hire human resources for their land. So, all the members of the family work on it… Almost always, after school, students go to work in their field, and at night do their homework. With the fatigue they feel, their learning is low.” Jorge Luis Arispe Rojas, a secondary rural teacher.
Day by day, teachers saw their students lose interest in their education. On the other hand, others realized how students wanted to take classes, but couldn’t due to work.
"Not reaching out to the students was a worry because only four or five students attended virtual classes and… the rest? There were 22 students. My worry was, what is going to happen with these kids? I decided to look for them. Many of my students worked, I even looked for them in the market. I went with my textbooks and gave them to.” Mrs. Calle, an elementary rural teacher.
An almost lost year
In August of 2020, the Minister of the Presidency, Yerko Nuñez declared the closing of the school year in Bolivia. The main reasons were the number of COVID-19 infections and the lack of technological conditions for virtual education. All of the students were approved to the next grade. Now in 2021, teachers are struggling with the consequences of this decision.
“There is a lack of learning level in the students. We are practically including (the formative contents) from the previous year. We have to reinforce the students and... support them. Also, it is hard for them because we advance fast in order to cover all the contents” Celia Herbas Peredo, a secondary rural teacher.
“The first trimester is reinforced… and how fast it is, the students don’t respond as we want them to.” Grover Condori Terrazas, a secondary rural teacher.
“In this year, putting as an example the previous one, with more force I ask for parents to come to semi in-person classes… Now, they’re the ones who are making a self-assessment to their kids that practically… they must support in their learning process.” Mr. Calcina, a preschool rural teacher.
In some places, teachers worked anyway. For example, parents in Capinota disagreed with the government announcement; for that reason, they decided with some schools to continue the classes. So, Violeta Portillo, a preschool teacher, taught virtually until November of 2020.
“When we needed to reinforce, we sent records to community radios… But the more efficient and effective strategy was the distribution of the textbooks and the home visit for teachers.” Rosario Herrera Torrez, a preschool rural teacher.
“I’ve not seen the government give support except for the textbooks, but too late. We’re already finishing the second trimester, and the distribution of the textbooks in secondary grades was the last weekend.” Olimpia Crespo Rocha, an elementary rural teacher.
We teach no matter what
In 2020, rural teachers faced challenges that put at risk their mental and physical health. In a period when people took distance from each other, rural areas presented the opposite. School educators struggled with the community’s way of thinking about COVID-19 according to Flaviano Camacho, Executive Director of the Federation of Rural Teachers from Cochabamba.
“It’s a pity because we… need to understand that anyone can infect others… We’ve been infected in the school, but what else are we going to do? If we ask for permission, a member of the community said that a lazy woman out of nowhere wants to get paid. It was terrible.” Mrs. Herbas, a secondary rural teacher
“Sometimes, parents go to school without surgery masks. We tell them that they have to wear it to avoid contagiousness to children and teachers. But they don’t understand and if you insist, they are disrespectful to you or get mad at you. It’s complicated.” Mrs. Portillo, a preschool rural teacher
When I asked them how they felt teaching in the pandemic, everyone stayed in silence for a while. It would seem that no one asked them that before.
Rural teachers in Cochabamba worked in difficult situations where they “reinvented” strategies for teaching. While the role and service of educators are important, so is their mental health. COVID-19 shows how people are still confronting the changes that the pandemic brings out, and rural teachers are not the exception.
Nowadays, with the three modalities for daily education, they hope to solve the gaps left by the previous year. As Violeta said, “Teachers always are going to adapt to changes, and a good teacher is always going to do it... despite any difficulties.”