14ymedio, Luz Escobar, Havana, 16 March 2021 — Elena Meriño’s work table has changed its geography since her children have stopped going to school. Mountains of books and notebooks and loose sheets of homework pile up alongside her work commitments. Since the coronavirus pandemic arrived in Cuba a year ago, the dining room of her apartment became her office, and the living room, the classroom of her children who are now in second and fifth grade.
The pictures on the main wall of the room were taken down to mount the blackboard that helps them keep the order of the day and better visualize the exercises. A small table and its chairs were installed at the foot of the television, where children watch teleclasses almost daily.
“We accommodate ourselves here as best we can, two friends of the children who live in the building and who do not have a television come over. The mother cannot look after them while they’re watching the classes because she spends the day on the street working. She makes cookies at night and then she spends the day going from door to door, knocking to sell her product. As it was within my power to help her, I offered myself, although it really is complicated for me,” says Meriño while giving the children an exercise.
In Cuba, the first closure of schools was decreed at the end of March 2020 as a result of the start of the pandemic, which has caused 62,206 infections and 373 deaths since its beginning a year ago.
“The teacher is irreplaceable,” Eugenio González Pérez, Deputy Minister of Education, told the official press, insisting on the importance of watching teleclasses “as a complement.” However, the parents’ concern increases as this alternative to school lengthens in time.
“At the end of the day I am their teacher,” says the mother, while complaining that this year the television classes “go very fast”, especially the subject of Mathematics. When the course was suspended “they working on calculations above number 12,” she explains, but they have started with something else without concluding that topic.
“I don’t know what I’m going to do, I’m worried the children won’t learn well and these grades are important because they are the basis for everything that comes afterwards. I can’t even complain, I remember that content perfectly and I can help my children and some of his friends, but I don’t even want to imagine what the parents who don’t understand it are going through and of course, it is impossible for them to explain it to their children. The worst thing is that I am already imagining the restart of school, whenever they decide to start, with the teachers skipping over all the content and passing all the children without their having the knowledge,” she reflects.
Yenia Del Monte lives in a small room in the La Timba neighborhood with her three children, her brother, her mother and her grandmother. She has been divorced from the father of her children for two years, so between her and the children’s grandmother they have assumed the upbringing of the little ones. At noon no one is in that room because the zinc roof heats up and everyone goes out to the common patio to get some fresh air while the children play.
Del Monte has an old television that still works but she cannot see the signal from the Educational Channel on it because she has not been able to buy the decoder box for the digital signal, the only way it has worked since it had its analog blackout. The mother also has no money to pay for a private teacher and even less for a computer where her children can watch teleclasses online.
“I have chosen to forget about everything that has to do with school because otherwise I was going to go crazy. At first I would struggle with that and I would run from one house to another so that the children were up to date, but no one can live that way. I spend the day fighting for money so that they can eat at home and looking for where to buy food, I don’t have a minute for anything else. Either they eat or they learn and well, they can learn later in school, but if they don’t eat, they go hungry,” laments this 26-year-old mother.
Del Monte’s mother, a young grandmother, is clear: “All of this has been a total disaster, they are counting on that we all have the same resources at home and it is not like that.”
She also wants to make clear her opinion about teleclasses: “Children at this age are not prepared to learn without a teacher in front of them. If they do not have a mother or someone by their side, they are left without learning. Few children are motivated yo study at this age and the content is hard. I hope that when they return to school they will dedicate time to consolidate what they had already taught before starting to teach the new things.”
Another of the concerned mothers is Amparo Santos. She is in charge of a teenage daughter who started in the seventh grade this year and she has also become the teacher at home, like so many other mothers, and outraged by the quality of the teleclasses that the Ministry of Education has made available to the students.
“The math classes are very difficult and they are also very hurried. All the parents in my daughter’s classroom think the same, but we have to find solutions. I think they are not well thought out, they assign homework exercises that they never explain. The answers are in the book, but not everyone knows how to calculate them,” explains Santos, who confesses herself privileged because when she was a student, mathematics was her favorite subject.
Santos has observed in the case of her daughter and her friends that many of them find it difficult to learn new content in just half an hour and without having a teacher in front of them. These are topics that the kids have never seen and they explain it too quickly.
The teacher in her teleclass does not take time to explain the homework, so the parents do not know if the children solved the exercises well. “If I’m honest, the teleclasses have been of little use to me, I have to explain everything to the child. They go very fast, every day is new content and to top it off they assign a lot of independent work that is impossible to do in a week.”
Alina Ibarra does not have the same luck as Santos and Meriño. A barely graduated pedagogist in the specialty of Spanish-Literature, she does not have at her hands the tools to explain fifth-grade mathematics to her 10-year-old daughter. She also does not have time because, although she spends the day at home, her workday is twelve hours.
“I work editing and translating documents online and I am a single mother so I have no choice but to work tirelessly to support my small family that is made up of my child and my grandmother,” she says.
“What I did was find a private teacher. He charges me 50 pesos an hour, but I had no choice, the alternative was for the child to remain without learning. I am lucky that I can pay for this service, which is also excellent, because I know that there are other mothers who have had to resign themselves and watch how their children spend the day at home without learning anything at all,” says Ibarra.
“The issue is that for fifth grade they are giving a lot of new content and they go very fast, it is not like before that it was only about homework. To top it off, there are many teleclasses that I have seen where the teachers have terrible diction and I don’t even know if he understands what they say. Although in the classroom we have created a WhatsApp group and the teacher does everything to help us, nothing replaces the teacher in front of a classroom,” declares Ibarra, a statement that coincides with the testimony of other parents consulted by this newspaper.
Ibarra notes that at first she tried on her own to teach her daughter at home, but was unsuccessful. Her idea was to download all the audiovisual material from the free Cubaeduca portal and then teach classes with the girl at night, but the website does not always update the schedule on a weekly basis. Between those setbacks and the few hours she had available to dedicate to it, she ended up hiring the private teacher.
The Ministry of Education recently reported that this March 15 began a “new grid” in the programming of the Educational Channel which includes the subjects that were not being taught so far and they promise to correct some of these problems pointed out by parents. It will be aimed at all the provinces and municipalities that are in the phase of limited Covid transmission, except Pinar del Río, which will have its own program.
Among the new subjects that are already being transmitted are sixth grade Geography; English, from third to sixth; History, seventh and eighth; and Chemistry, Physics, and Biology, in twelfth grade.
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