14ymedio, Luz Escobar, Havana, 24 September 2021 — For months, Yanet Fernández, who lives in the neighborhood of multi-family buildings in Havana’s Nuevo Vedado, has not started her day with kisses to her classroom friends and the rowdy conversation of the “gang” before the morning assembly. Since the capital’s schools closed last January, he has had to receive classes at home and the first thing he sees when he opens his eyes is the television screen and the notebook next to his breakfast.
“I only watch teleclasses to please my mother. I copy everything, but out of commitment to her. It’s the most boring thing in the world and, to top it all, it’s the same as last year,” says this ninth-grade student. “I have asked everyone, but none of my friends have seen a single subject from those classes on television,” says Fernández.
Alina Moreno, mother of the teenager, has been dealing with this problem since face-to-face classes were suspended. “Turning on the television and seeing the teacher sitting behind a desk, trying to capture the attention of the children without the slightest preparation makes me desperate. They do not exploit all the tools that this format offers and, in addition, they are repeating content,” she complains.
Each teleclass lasts half an hour and, most of the time, the teacher who teaches it has never been in front of a camera before. The most used resource is the PowerPoint presentation, often with errors and spelling mistakes, a tool that has begun to become obsolete.
“What I see now is that they are not recording anything new and I understand that they get tired and do not want to see it. The authorities are not taking the education of the boys very seriously in this pandemic scenario,” says Moreno.
Inés Casal, a grandmother of two school-age adolescents and a retired professor at the University of Havana, tells 14ymedio that she has been aware of this issue because her two grandchildren also receive teleclasses and it is difficult for her to separate her roles “as a professional and as a grandmother.”
Casal recalls that the educational television method “had its peak in the 60s of the last century,” when it was strongly promoted in the US. But, in her opinion, the idea “has been a failure,” above all if it is based, as many countries have done, on trying to make up for the absence of a teacher in the classroom by putting one in front of a camera.
“A teacher giving classes on TV, without any teacher-student interaction, will never be able to replace a teacher in a classroom constantly exchanging with their students, and vice versa.”
Casal believes that, in the specific case of Cuba, failure was predetermined. “The classes that I have seen are disastrous. The teachers simply repeat what is in the books, without an atom of didactics, with almost zero support media: presentations with texts and nothing else. With some exceptions, serious mistakes are made when writing the questions of the exercises. They have selected teachers who have no sense of humor to give this type of classes, they look like robots. The children who manage to attend and, above all, learn, are so good that they do not even need the classes,” she emphasizes.
In her opinion, it would have been preferable “to understand and assume that there will be a regression in the students (lost years) and hard work required after they rejoin classes.”
This idea has been rejected by world institutions in the field of childhood and education, which consider it essential that children continue to receive classes, face-to-face as much as possible, or a replacement with some technological tool.
In Cuba, not even teachers like Inés Casal consider the method most used in most Western countries that faced the closure of schools at some point in the pandemic: online classes.
The teachers resorted to video calls and messaging to try to advance in the subjects and, although in no case has the quality of face-to-face been matched, the mechanism has allowed not only a minimum of learning, but also routines and a culture of effort.
Countries with lower incomes or where internet penetration is low have suffered more, but this should not have been a problem in Cuba, with a relatively small size and the state telecommunications monopoly Etecsa potentially capable of providing a basic infrastructure to cover the service to guarantee online operations and education that the country offers, ultimately, free.
“There were two possibilities: either that Etecsa would offer educational data packages to be used by teachers and students; or that the Ministry of Education would acquire the packages and offer them to students. But this has not happened because Etecsa does not have a social vocation, rather it focuses on collecting [money]”, says María, a resident of the same neighborhood of Yanet Fernández.
“Teachers complain that they have not been offered an extra allocation for WhatsApp,” she adds, knowing that many teachers are spending money out of their own pockets to keep in touch with their students.
Although an agreement between the telecommunications monopoly Etecsa and the Ministry of Education would be very simple, since both are part of the State, the Government has never explored this route.
“They don’t want to set a precedent because then anyone who works remotely could ask for a data quota and, as a general rule, the only people who have preferential or free prices are some employees of Etecsa, State Security and, probably, also the senior officials. There is an eternal mistrust that people are not going to use it for its intended purpose,” says María.
Juliete Isabel Fernández Estrada has two children who receive teleclasses and she has managed to get them to watch them daily, even if just “as a formality.” However, she believes that the limitations of this format are a reflection of those already possessed by Cuban education.
“To the poverty and rigidity of the contents that are taught, the political indoctrination, the outdated and the deficient training of teachers, is added the poor use of the facilities provided by the television medium and the lack of imagination to animate teleclasses, in which practically all kinds of resources and messages would fit, not just the patriotic songs in fashion and fragments of Fidel’s speeches,” she laments.
Lizandra, a fourth grade teacher, says that there are parents in the group she teaches who have been able to pay for a private tutor to help their children not lose the thread with their studies, but points out that “this is not the case for most of them.” Many parents complain that children have no way to review the assignments and exercises that are given to them every day in class and that teachers are very fast in the teleclass.
“I think that the fact that students are not motivated by the teleclass has so much to do with the television format. Many of them spend hours watching Youtuber programs downloaded from the internet that come in the ‘weekly packet‘ but, unlike teleclasses, there they find an attractive set, different camera shots, animations or graphics that make the content more digestible,” says Lizandra.
The teacher confirms what María pointed out: the internet is “very expensive” and it is very difficult for teachers to always be connected to monitor the evolution of their students.
The announcement by the Ministry of Education that face-to-face classes should be resumed gradually starting in November and it will be difficult for young people to get used to returning to an activity that they have abandoned almost a year ago.
“I have spoken with other mothers and they tell me the same thing,” explains Alina Moreno. “I am afraid that going back to school will be difficult for a young woman who has been away from classrooms and the routine of learning for months.”
COLLABORATE WITH OUR WORK: The 14ymedio team is committed to practicing serious journalism that reflects Cuba’s reality in all its depth. Thank you for joining us on this long journey. We invite you to continue supporting us by becoming a member of 14ymedio now. Together we can continue transforming journalism in Cuba.