Without Books, Uniforms or Teachers, Cuba’s Students Return to Class Under Painful Conditions

Two girls on the first day of the school year at the Vo Thi Thang primary school in Havana this Monday. (EFE/Yander Zamora)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Juan Diego Rodríguez, Havana, 4 September 2023 — The school year that began this Monday in Cuba will be the first to follow the regular calendar after the interruptions and incomplete academic years due to the Covid-19 pandemic. However, few starts of the school year as painful as this one are remembered on the Island. The shortage of books, uniforms and teachers, together with the high cost of materials, worries both parents and students.

“The fact that there are no notebooks or pencils was already a problem… but there are no books! How are children supposed to study at home?” laments María, a resident of Old Havana whose children have not been able to receive the necessary course material. “Not even in the 90s, when I studied, was there this disaster,” she says, referring to the crisis of the Special Period.

Getting school uniforms is also a problem. María’s cousin, whose children are in elementary school, had to ask a relative in Miami to buy the clothes from there. “It is true that for a few years there have been online sites that sell them of much better quality than those in state stores, but now there is no other possible option,” laments the young woman.

Yanelis, another mother from Havana, who lives in the municipality of Diez de Octubre with a daughter in secondary school, says that the biggest problem in her school is the lack of teachers. “They have to wait for the municipality to send a teacher to teach them Spanish, because the teacher they had in other years left,” she says.

That there are no notebooks or pencils was already a problem… but that there are no books! How are kids supposed to study at home?

Another complaint this morning, in the parents-teachers meeting after the morning assembly (the daily ceremony loaded with ideology and political demands), was the heat in the classrooms. Yanelis reports what the teacher answered: “Well, that’s up to the parents, if you want to bring an old fan or anything, that’s up to you.”

With temperatures approaching 80 degrees Fahrenheit in the shade and few windows, many classrooms become veritable ovens where it is impossible to teach a subject without a cooling device. The fans hardly feature in the official investment figures, but they are vital on a day-to-day basis.

For the rest, the woman assures, “the study material is complete, five notebooks for seventh grade students and six for eighth and ninth graders, and they say that the books, although they are used, are good,” which differentiates some Havana municipalities from what happens in the province, where scarcity is the norm. As she also explained, “these books are only going to be used for a few weeks. At the end of the month they are going to change the books for new ones, because they are going to start a different study system, which they call ‘improvement’.”

That’s how it will be, she continues, for first, fourth and seventh grade students, “because they changed the planning of those courses.” Yanelis refers to something that the Minister of Education, Naima Ariadne Trujillo, explained, with the usual official crypticism in an appearance on State TV’s Roundtable program last Tuesday. “We say that the educational system is always being perfected due to its characteristics, due to its contextual and socio-historical nature. Everything that happened specifically with respect to the pandemic could be faced in a more favorable way and in a position of success, because, one was able to work with more teachers in the preparation,” were the words of Trujillo.

The minister, who on the same program warned of the shortage of books and teachers, attributed the difficulties this Monday, during the official act marking the beginning of the school year, to the “complex international reality” and the “intensification” of US sanctions against Cuba. At the same time, and despite everything, she assured that there are “many reasons” for the country “to be celebrating today.”

Similarly, she mentioned the “problems with teaching coverage,” although without mentioning the unprecedented exodus that the Island has suffered for two years  

Along the same lines, Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel tweeted: “The happy day has arrived. Back to the classroom, to classes, to friends, to the certainty that all efforts and sacrifices are worth it to see the future filled with light. Congratulations, Cuba, because, whatever it takes, all your schools are still open.”

On the Roundtable program, the minister had recognized that classes for 1.7 million students between the ages of 5 and 17 would not start in the best conditions. Thus, Trujillo assured that “notebooks and pencils” would be guaranteed, although the semester would be “adjusted” and that “alternatives would be sought to solve the insufficiency of textbooks.” Similarly, she mentioned the “problems with teaching coverage,” although without mentioning the unprecedented exodus that the Island has suffered in the last two years, largely of young people and professionals.

The provinces most affected by the lack of teachers are, the minister explained, Havana, Artemisa, Mayabeque, Sancti Spíritus, Camagüey and Ciego de Ávila. “In the East there is a much more favorable situation than in the Central and Western provinces,” she specified. “In fact, the eastern provinces have become territories that send professionals to the rest of the provinces.”

To solve the shortage of personnel, Trujillo said that they would use “all contracting variants,” such as hourly contracts, “additional loads on a professional manager” or calling on the Educating for Love “contingents” of the University Student Federation (FEU).

On the other hand, the enormous economic burden due to the high cost of materials is something that almost all families already suffer. In Ciego de Ávila, Yeisi had to buy the books and notebooks for her children because, she says, “they did not get a complete set. They were going to distribute what was in very poor condition, one per head.”

“Out of curiosity I have paused to make calculations of what it costs to dress a child for school and I have reached the figure of 30,000 (thirty thousand pesos!), without getting into the subject of snacks and extras for lunch,” explained María Padilla, posting on the networks, who continues: “This number increases as our children grow. We criticize the ‘individuals’, but the State is incapable of providing. Children whose parents do not have economic solvency feel excluded, the teasing children endure is very cruel and marks them for life. Happy back to school? I don’t think so!”


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