By April 1, nearly 1.6 billion learners across the world had been affected by school closures due to COVID-19. For school children in the northern hemisphere, the turbulent school year came to an end with the arrival of warmer weather, but for millions of students and teachers in the southern hemisphere the school year is only halfway through. All primary and secondary level schools in Chile have been closed since March 15, forcing teachers to move classes online. Teaching across Chile's structurally and economically diverse schooling system presents challenges even without a pandemic gripping the country.
At the beginning of the global pandemic, Chile was initially hailed as a leader in Latin America, due to aggressive testing and what the Chilean government called “dynamic” quarantines, or targeted lockdowns in areas with the highest number of cases. But now, the country of 19 million is still battling a growing infection rate. Over 360,000 cases of COVID-19 have been confirmed and more than 9000 people have died due to the disease.
“Winter is coming strong and it is going to be tough, and I don’t think I’m going to see my students any time soon,” Francisca Alvear, a preschool teacher at a private school in Chile’s capital of Santiago told Global Voices through a Zoom video call.
In March, Alvear and her colleagues shifted to teaching entirely online by creating pre-recorded videos, conducting Zoom calls with students, and communicating through WhatsApp chats. Working completely online with young children has specific challenges. “Usually when you teach kids that young, they need contact, human contact. They need to see what you are doing, they are missing that,” said Alvear.
With all of greater Santiago under lockdown orders since May 15, teachers are having to contend with upended home schedules and the added pressures that accompany life under quarantine. “One big issue is that we have busy parents,” said Alvear. “Maybe they don’t connect because they have online meetings themselves, or maybe they have two or three other children and they cannot focus on this child to stay sitting down for an hour straight for the Zoom classes.”
In June, after teaching online for more than three months, Alvear was furloughed by her private school, citing funding issues as the likely reason for the temporary contract suspension. Alvear's school does not make their tuition fees public, but similar private schools in Chile can cost families hundreds or thousands of US dollars a month, well out of the reach of the average Chilean family. The minimum monthly wage in Chile is around $375 US dollars.
According to Education Minister Raul Figueroa the government had been preparing distance learning measures for public schools at the first signs of COVID-19 in January. Since the closing of schools in March the Chilean Ministry of Education has launched the digital platform “Aprendo en linea,” an online library of school material for students such as lesson plans, digitized books, and pre-recorded videos. In coordination with Chile’s mobile phone service providers, consumers have been allowed to download school materials free of charge. The Chilean Air Force has been delivering print material to thousands of hard-to-reach rural schools with limited internet access. Some teachers in Chile's impoverished Araucanía region are teaching students out of vans that are driven home to home.
The need to deliver materials via air or teach inside vans further illustrates the complex challenges teachers face in Chile. The country's education system is economically segregated with students split across three different school types: underfunded municipal schools, public schools subsidized through vouchers and fees, and expensive private schools. According to 2017 figures published by the OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) more than 20 percent of Chilean children live in poverty. Even before the advent of online schooling, the learning experience for Chilean children varied greatly, often depending entirely on family wealth.
“Many children don’t have internet, mobile phones, or computers,” explains John Tamm, a social-emotional learning teacher in Santiago, through a Zoom video call. Last school year Tamm taught at a subsidized public school in Santiago’s impoverished and overcrowded San Ramon district, now hard hit by the pandemic.
According to Tamm, the 2020 school year in San Ramon started late due to ongoing protests over economic inequality — then came COVID-19. During a regular year at Tamm’s school, students receive multiple meals a day from the school operated canteen, now the poorest families wait for supplies from the central government.
Tamm’s in-person curriculum cannot be taught through the internet, so now his time is focused on helping his fellow teachers prepare lessons. “Many [school] psychologists who work here are trying to contact every family, find out the situation, and find out how they can help,” said Tamm.
Whether students are poor or wealthy, the profession of teaching is very different under COVID-19. “It’s gonna require a lot of patience from the teacher and a lot of patience from the students as this is a completely new paradigm for learning,” said Matthew Underwood, an English language teacher at a private German school in Santiago. “The situation educators are being placed in right now, and students for that matter, is completely unprecedented,” said Underwood via Zoom video call.
In response to COVID-19, Santiago and dozens of other municipalities tightened quarantine controls in May. Some of those controls are being lifted as part of the government's “Paso a Paso” (“step by step“) plan to reopen the country, but the progress will likely be slow. Quarantine rules will no doubt continue to put pressure on Chile's families, schools, and teachers. In the last week several municipal authorities have stated that schools will not return to regular in-person classes until 2021. Education Minister Raul Figueroa has been hesitant to declare that the entire 2020 school year will be conducted online and has been criticized for comments claiming that the lack of in-person schooling could lead to abusive at home situations for Chilean children.
Before receiving the difficult news of her contract suspension, preschool teacher Francisca Alvear was optimistic that her and her colleagues would meet the challenge of teaching in an economically diverse school system. “We always in end find the tools to get to the students,” said Alvear. “Hang in there, because it gets better.”