FECODE: government refusing to engage unions over education crisis

Colombia’s main teachers union, FECODE, has criticised the government for failing to address the students’ needs during the coronavirus pandemic and refusing to speak to the union about the resulting educational crisis.

In an interview with Colombian newspaper El Espectador, FECODE executive committee member Luisa Fernanda Ospina said ‘the pandemic has allowed them to shield themselves’. She also said that many students cannot access virtual classes as they do not have computers or they live in zones without internet coverage. While FECODE has attempted to engage the government to develop a strategy to overcome these challenges, there has so far been little response.

Below is a translation of the interview.

Years ago, the largest budget allocation was for the war, but today it cannot be denied that it is for education.

Sure, the largest budget area is for education, but what the country is most paying for is the service of debt. This policy has been consolidated during 30 years of neoliberalism and now it’s related to Colombia’s entry into the OECD, whose economic practices do not intend for the country to progress, but so that it keeps paying. That’s why the big powers had an interest in Colombia entering the OECD.

There is a relative increase in resources, but under what panorama? In 2001, the way in which various sectors are financed was modified. In the 19 years since then, they have stopped receiving around $191 billion Colombian pesos (£41 million).

If there are more resources, why are we talking about a crisis?

After 2001, when the reforms started, the system changed and the nation stopped investing the resources in education that it was previously spending. That’s why public universities, colleges and other sectors are in crisis. Before then, there were positions of academic vice-rector, school counsellors in every campus, nurses, discipline coordinators and academic coordinators. Lots have disappeared.

To give a simple example: in the municipality of Génova there are rural campuses, colleges in the urban area and the school counsellor must cover everything. It’s impossible, teachers are committed and we try to make a big effort, but like this it’s impossible. Education in this country functions due to the dedication of teachers.

What is the situation facing children in rural areas, during this time of pandemic?

It is the main concern that we have. When this started, the first sector to go into lockdown was education. We’ve been like this for over 100 days, which we needed to do, because schools and colleges are vulnerable to the issue of COVID-19. And the Ministry opted for virtual learning.

According to studies, 96 per cent of municipalities in the country cannot implement virtual education because more than 50 per cent of students don’t have a computer or internet in their homes. Another issue is that rural areas don’t have internet coverage. Even in Armenia, the capital of Quindío, there are sectors which don’t have internet.

So what is being done to provide classes?

At the moment, between 25 and 30 per cent of students haven’t been able to connect in any way since the pandemic began. What has been achieved is because teachers, through their love for their work, have visited every single one of their students’ homes with books and texts so that they can progress in the school year.

What will happen with those who cannot access virtual classes? Are they going to miss the year?

In extraordinary situations, there are extraordinary measures. In FECODE, we’ve insisted that educational institutions are permitted, in the exercise of their school autonomy, to define their plans, take decisions and that they are provided with the resources needed for their students. What’s happening is that many municipalities do not have internet and the kids don’t have computers. We have to work on this, the world has changed, we need connectivity and the tools for students to take their classes. Parents and teachers are the heroes of this pandemic, they have converted homes into classrooms.

The government must guarantee, at least, that there is internet across all national territory.

What is FECODE doing?

We’ve been accompanying our teachers in every one of their tasks and, to reiterate, teachers have broken their own lockdown to attend to their students, trying to make sure that the chain with their students isn’t broken.

What concrete calls do you make to the government?

FECODE, along with other trade unions, has proposed that the priority is support for families. Many of these are deciding between buying rice, meat or milk, or buying internet, a computer or a tablet so their children can study. For now, they are not going to be able to attend school, and the government must guarantee internet not only for students but also for teachers. The question is, what has the government done for students during these 100 days of quarantine?

But the government has spoken of providing help, like tablets and computers.

The first thing is internet, and we don’t have it. The other issue is that we cannot continue sending teachers to every one of their students’ homes. Regarding the help that you mention, in many of the zones where this has been provided, there isn’t even internet coverage. And the Ministry of Education decided this, not teachers.   

What has the government’s response been to these requests?

There has been no response so far. The government has not engaged FECODE since the pandemic began. We’ve insisted and it’s been impossible. It seems that a policy of state was adopted to disregard trade union organisations, and the most serious issue is that the pandemic has allowed them to shield themselves. We’ve tried to speak to the Minister of Education, María Victoria Angulo, through all avenues, via phone or letters, and nothing.

What do you think about returning to normal classes?

It isn’t sensible. Ideally, they will continue classes at home and make every effort to improve virtual mechanisms.

And continue virtually until when?

Until December, at least, until the year ends and, if there are conditions, to return the following year, but there must be full guarantees around biosecurity.