How the pandemic is affecting education in rural Guatemala

In Guatemala, only 56% of students living in rural areas graduate sixth grade and just 30% of those sixth graders reach the national standards in reading. The suspension of school due to COVID-19 is only exacerbating these issues. In the US, computers and wifi are more accessible; in Guatemala, this is not the case, especially in rural areas. So, how are children in rural Guatemala keeping up with their education during the pandemic?

When school was suspended in March 2020, Guatemala’s Ministry of Education began to televise classes for students nationwide. Each grade level has a time slot of 30 minutes for three days a week. That half-hour is divided into just 15 minutes of literacy and 15 minutes of mathematics. 

Mil Milagros In-Country director Lucy, lives in Santa Lucía Utatlán with her two young children. Her 8-year old son Leisser watches the classes but struggles with the curriculum.  

“After every class, I ask him what he learned,” says Lucy. “Often he tells me that he didn’t understand the class or the teacher was talking about a book he doesn’t have. Maybe in the city they have these books but here in rural areas we don’t have them.”

To understand why a student like Leisser might not understand the content of some of his classes, even though he is watching his grade level, we need to look at the disparity that exists between Indigenous and non-indigenous students. For example, only 14% of Indigenous students reach national standards in mathematics compared to 30% of non-indigenous students.  The switch to remote, televised content is only making the problem worse. 

Child doing homework and watching television
Leisser watching televised classes from home

Indigenous children living in rural Guatemala are hindered by an under-funded, under-resourced system. The Guatemalan government spends less than 3% of GDP on education and rural areas are particularly disadvantaged. They receive the bare minimum to spend on education. Every year, teachers receive just $30USD for teaching materials and  $7USD per child for school supplies. Students in rural areas are disadvantaged by the lack of funding and resources and require extra attention and resources to help them reach national standards. That cannot be achieved through the televised classes. 

It's not just that class time has been cut back. Many parents are poorly equipped to facilitate education from home. Santos, a mother of three from Santa Lucía, never finished primary school. She can neither read nor write. Her children have been watching televised classes but have questions she can’t answer. 

She isn’t alone. In the Sololá region, where Santa Lucía is located, 31% of adults don’t know how to read or write. On average, Indigenous women have only three years of education. Mothers like Santos want to help their children but their lack of education is holding them back.

While the televised classes leave a lot to be desired, many teachers in Santa Lucía are continuing to support their students in other ways. They don’t have the resources to conduct online classes. Even if they did have the resources to conduct online classes children in rural areas do not have the means to access them. Those teachers are nevertheless connecting with parents via Whatsapp to assign schoolwork, visiting students at home to collect homework, and sharing Mil Milagros’ literacy videos with their students every week. 

“They are searching for ways to support their students so they don’t fall behind,” says Lucy. “Professor Joel, in our partner school in Chuijomil, was very interested in the literacy videos the Mil Milagros team have been sharing and it inspired him to start making his own videos for his students.”

Children watching Mil Milagros literacy videos on phone
Children watching the Mil Milagros literacy videos

As Guatemala begins to reopen business and travel, it’s likely that schools will return early next year. In each of Mil Milagros’ partner schools, children and teachers are equipped with the necessary education resources - teaching materials and supplies, books, hygiene supplies, and clean water. These are essential in helping students fight the odds and achieve their academic goals. The pandemic has exacerbated longstanding education issues in rural Guatemala but Mil Milagros is working to help children have the bright futures they deserve.