This blog post features an interview between CIRE’s Julia Paulson and Arturo Charria Hernández, Municipal Education Secretary in the city of Cúcuta, Colombia. The interview focuses on how Arturo and his colleagues are approaching the educational response to Covid-19 in Cúcuta. The city of over 700,000 people is located in a region which was experiencing considerable social and educational challenges prior to the pandemic. Arturo also discusses if and how the emergency response to the pandemic is raising questions and opening spaces to reimagine education.
La versión del blog en español está aquí.
Arturo Charria Hernández
JP: Cúcuta was facing educational challenges prior to the arrival of coronavirus – can you paint us picture of the region and its educational situation?
ACH: Before the arrival of coronavirus, we had institutional problems like a lack of teachers, all of whom are assigned to us by the National Ministry of Education. Our lack of teachers is due to a steep increase in enrolments since we have migrants students arriving in the department from Venezuela, as well as Colombian students arriving due to displacement related to armed conflict. Additionally, these students tend to be concentrated in zones lacking educational infrastructure (schools), which leads to higher numbers of children out of school.
Another challenge is that, although education is public, many of our services are contracted annually and contracts are often delayed. This means that some services like school transport, internet connectivity, o learning support assistants for students with additional needs do not start on time and classes begin without them. This increases inequities in the quality of education and affects the rights of children to receive an education.
JP: What has changed thanks to coronavirus?
ACH: Coronavirus reflects the very challenging conditions that our students live with. It isn’t only that they don’t have access to appropriate technologies or the internet, it is also that they don’t have adequate physical space to carry on with their learning. Many students live in homes where having a table and chair on which to do their schoolwork is a luxury that they don’t have.
Coronavirus also highlights the difficulties that teachers have in suddenly needing to reinvent themselves by using new technologies and adapting to the new needs that the education system presents. This has opened space for important new discussions about issues that weren’t being discussed before, including around educational content, the curriculum, the ways in which learning is evaluated, and, especially, around the value of emotion and care in education.
JP: How did you make the decision to close schools in Cúcuta and what concerns did the decision open for you?
ACH: We made the decision based on the wellbeing that students, parents and carers, and the educational community in general should have. We didn’t have the appropriate conditions to guarantee people’s health and this implies being prudent. Closing schools was a decision that should have been taken at a national level, but there wasn’t a direct line. We took the decision a day before the national government and I think that this helped to accelerate the decision from the executive.
JP: In what ways does education continue under lockdown in Cúcuta ? What are you and your colleagues in the Education Secretariat, teachers and families doing to ensure that learning continues?
ACH: Education is continuing in a flexible way in homes. Some are using the platforms of school’s websites, others use social media (Facebook and Whatsapp) to share information and support students in real time. We’re also sending printed material guides for independent learning to support those who have difficulties with internet connectivity.
We’ve sent very clear guidance from the Municipal Education Secretariat in which we highlight what is important at this time: that the student as a person rather than the sum of their knowledge. This guidance reflects on the pedagogical principals of evaluation in these difficult times. We also provide guidance on the role of parents, who should be present without totally replacing teachers. We know that at this time, education can’t be an emotional weight for families because this could generate intrafamily violence, depression, stress and even school dropout.
JP: Have your thoughts about the purposes of and priorities for education changed in recent weeks and months? How and why?
ACH: Definitely. These weeks have made us more human. We’ve understood more than ever the importance of working on the emotional and affective, of caring for ourselves. But, we’ve also accelerated fundamental discussions about the educational systems. What is the purpose of so many themes that students cover in their classes? The discussions about the curriculum and assessment are gaining traction that they didn’t have before. This is an opportunity for major transformations around the ethical purposes of education and about what schools signify in the relation to the wider life of a society.
JP: How do you feel as an educator? Where are you finding hope and what do you do when you encounter despair?
ACH: I find a lot of hope. There are teachers and principals who are doing marvelous things. We are all reinventing ourselves to rediscover what is essential. When I do meet despair, I always remember what my wife told on a day that was very hard: ‘this too shall pass’.
Reader, if you are an educator or student and would like to share your experiences learning under lockdown on a CIRE blog, please contact: Julia.firstname.lastname@example.org.